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Incoming pandemic relief money sets stage for debate among Aiken officials

Stuart Bedenbough, Aiken City Manager, Coronavirus

Aiken City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh introduces the city's fiscal year 2021-22 budget at a meeting Monday night. (Colin Demarest/Staff)

The city of Aiken is expecting to receive its first tranche of coronavirus relief money in the coming weeks, teeing up a public debate about how the one-time funds should be spent.

Approximately half of the expected $4.98 million sum will land in the city’s coffers this fiscal year, according to City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh. The remainder is expected later; the Treasury Department has floated a 12-month window.

“Certainly, it’s unbudgeted money,” Bedenbaugh told City Council members Monday night. “But we will need to have some discussions with council on how we can spend those funds.”

Mayor Rick Osbon on Tuesday said he’d like to see the money help the hospitality and accommodations sectors, which were particularly hard hit by the global health crisis. In 2020, nearly 4 million jobs in the broader hospitality industry were lost due to the pandemic, according to a late-January report from the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

“It’s intended to rejuvenate or re-spark the economy,” Osbon said of the money. “I don’t want to see it rolled into the general fund.”

The recovery funds, a facet of the American Rescue Plan, can generally be used to respond to the COVID-19 quagmire by offsetting economic losses, supporting public health expenditures and investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

“In responding to the public health emergency and its negative economic impacts, state, local, and tribal governments have seen substantial increases in costs to provide these services, often amid substantial declines in revenue due to the economic downturn and changing economic patterns during the pandemic,” the Treasury Department explained in a lengthy ruling.

Aiken received spending guidance this week. The money must be spent by the end of 2024 – something City Council member Lessie Price joked is easily doable.

“We do need to have that conversation,” Bedenbaugh said. “The good news is it’s money. I think we’ve got things we can spend it on.”

The North Augusta City Council discussed its prospective allotment, nearly $9 million, Monday night.

More than 486,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in South Carolina. Thousands of South Carolinians have died because of the virus.

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the Energy Department, its NNSA, and government and politics, in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin.

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