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Tension emerges around Kent County Levy Court's plan to provide ARPA funding to Delaware Turf

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Delaware Public Media
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Kent County’s Levy Court is still distributing more than $30 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, and this week, questions emerged about a large chunk to the Delaware Turf athletic complex south of Dover.

Levy Court set its ARPA spending priorities in April, focusing on support for senior services, emergency responders, homeless service providers, stormwater infrastructure and ventilation projects in county buildings.

Tuesday, Commissioners reviewed both those priorities and a list of funding applications the county received. The largest planned expenditure is an $8 million program to help nonprofits make up for revenue lost during the pandemic or pay for capital projects. Those nonprofits – including the Food Bank of Delaware’s Milford branch, for instance – can receive up to $500,000. Because of the volume of applications, the consulting firm that is helping the county manage its ARPA spending noted that it might fall slightly short of funding for the program, though it may have extra dollars to provide to nonprofits in that scenario.

The largest single planned recipient is Delaware Turf, the nonprofit sports field complex. Levy Court plans to provide it $1.3 million, which is listed separately from the $8 million budgeted for supporting other nonprofits.

Commissioner Jeff Hall wondered aloud whether including a large amount of funding for organizations like Delaware Turf strays from the Levy Court’s priorities.

“Every one of them is important, but we as a body approved a certain amount of work to be done and then it seems like these other things creep in,” he said.

Hall said he would not oppose the funding for Delaware Turf but faced criticism from Commissioner Allan Angel for questioning the decision to set aside dollars for the sports complex, which he called argued is important for Kent County's economic recovery.

“Because they’re such an economic driver, that was what our focus was," he said. "We could get jobs and people back, get people buying things. If you were at Delaware Turf this weekend, there wasn’t a place to park.”

But Hall argues that given the constraints on the county's ARPA spending efforts — both the financial constraints and the limited number of staff available to process applications — devoting attention to projects that don't match the Levy Court's stated priorities could make an already long process drag on even longer. "We said we would prioritize nonprofits that serve a few categories of disadvantaged people — seniors, people with disabilities, children and youth, and homeless people," he said. "I want us to get those nonprofits the support they need as quickly as we can, and I question why we would do anything that distracts from that."

Hall also asserts that the Levy Court should consider whether it is fair to set $500,000 funding caps for most nonprofits but allow Delaware Turf's request for $1.3 million to move forward. "We didn't do strategic thinking about the major economic drivers of the county and how we wanted to support them," he said. "If we had that conversation and it led us to offering Delaware Turf this sum of money, I might be more comfortable with that, but that's not what we did. If we can allocate that much money for them, maybe we need to take another look at the capital projects the other nonprofits are asking for."

The Levy Court still has ARPA dollars that have yet to be earmarked, and the commissioners discussed several possibilities for their use, including updates to the county's water treatment infrastructure and support for affordable and workforce housing development.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.