The 2021 National Association of Counties (NACo) Annual Conference was held in Prince George's County, Maryland, from July 9 through July 12, and was attended either online or in-person by officials from nearly 2,500 of the country's 3,069 counties. The four-day conference hosted a number of federal officials who came to speak on the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), varying proposed national infrastructure bills, broadband expansion and the challenges faced by county governments during the COVID-19 pandemic. Vice President Kamala Harris made her first in-person conference appearance since taking office. Additionally, Speaker of the U.S. House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) addressed the conference in-person and via video message, respectively. Several federal agency secretaries, deputy secretaries and senior staff also spoke.
ARPA and Infrastructure
The American Rescue Plan Act and the still-being-negotiated national infrastructure bill were major topics of discussion at multiple sessions. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg touted the recently announced $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF) agreement, and discussed how the bill will target land, sea and air transportation in rural and urban counties, making it the largest investment in public transportation in U.S. history. Surface transportation will be an aspect of particular interest to counties given the fact that counties own 45% of all roads and 40% of all bridges in the country. Buttigieg emphasized the importance of county officials contacting their U.S. representatives and senators to inform them of local infrastructure needs so that they may be addressed as the bill is deliberated and through the rulemaking process if passed. The BIF is expected to be paired with a larger "soft" infrastructure bill that would focus on items like child tax credits, Medicare expansion, job training, programs to address climate change and public education initiatives. Buttigieg also addressed concerns that ARPA funding could be clawed back to help pay for the BIF, and he made clear that those funds would not be subject to such federal action.
In a joint session of the Large Urban County Caucus and the Rural Action Caucus, Jacob Leibenluft, chief recovery officer at the U.S. Treasury Department, spoke on the importance of county input throughout the rulemaking process to implement ARPA. Leibenluft emphasized the need for federal recovery personnel to understand the differences that exist from county to county in terms of leadership structure, official responsibilities and services provided to best inform the Treasury as it develops rules for the ARPA and future recovery programs. Since the publication of the Treasury's Interim Final Rule in May, TAC and NACo have collected Frequently Asked Questions and submitted them to the Treasury for consideration as final rules are developed. With the first round of county reports due to the Treasury on Aug. 31, many questions asked of the various speakers and panels on the ARPA were directed to the Treasury's Compliance and Reporting Guidance, published in June. One critical piece of information that was shared concerned record retention. Even if a county does not spend any of the funds allotted to them by the ARPA, that county will still need to maintain the accounting records relating to those funds for five years after the final expenditure date of Dec. 31, 2026. It was speculated by NACo staff that the Final Rules will be issued at the end of August, just before TAC's 2021 Legislative Conference in Austin on Sept. 1-3, 2021.
The $1.9 trillion ARPA was passed in March along party lines and set out $65.1 billion for county governments. Texas counties received $5.7 billion, disbursed based on county population. In McConnell’s video message, he encouraged counties to take advantage of this "once in a lifetime opportunity," stating his belief that counties will do so wisely. Visit TAC's American Rescue Plan Information & Resource page for updates as they become available.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and increased our country's reliance on the internet to deliver on our economic, educational, public health and safety, and recreational needs. As county officers and employees exemplified the definition of "frontline" and "essential" workers, many saw firsthand the shortcomings of broadband internet in rural counties, as well as in certain areas of large urban counties. Appointed by NACo Immediate Past President Gary Moore, the NACo Broadband Task Force, co-chaired by Wise County Judge J.D. Clark, presented its report on preparing for broadband expansion, identifying barriers to buildout, digital divides and disparities, and the importance of connecting to a "Global" economy. One major concern that officials expressed at multiple panel discussions was the need for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to update and correct the broadband deployment maps, which some see as misleading and inaccurate. These criticisms stem from entire census blocks considered to have available broadband access if a single location in that block receives the service. The report will become a critical resource for NACo staff in their interactions with federal agencies and policymakers as broadband access becomes a major focal point for current and future infrastructure legislation. Currently, hundreds of billions of dollars are being proposed in multiple pieces of federal legislation focused at narrowing and eliminating the digital divide. Current FCC standards define broadband as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload.
The task force included several other Texas officials playing a key role in the report’s production, including TAC Board President and Comal County Treasurer Renee Couch, Cooke County Judge Jason Brinkley, recently retired Glasscock County Judge Kim Halfmann and Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley.
New NACo President Elected
As the conference concluded, NACo’s now Immediate Past President Bill Moore thanked the county officials who had gathered in person and virtually for their tireless work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and welcomed incoming president, DeKalb County, Georgia, Commissioner Larry Johnson. Johnson thanked Moore for his leadership in a difficult time and expressed optimism looking forward as counties take the lead in our nation’s reemergence from the pandemic. Johnson announced his initiative "Counties THRIVE," a new program focusing on technology, health, readiness, infrastructure, vulnerable populations and economic opportunity. The 2021 Annual Conference was the first large gathering of NACo members since early 2020, when county officials gathered in Washington, D.C., for the Legislative Conference. The 2022 annual conference will be held in Adams County, Colorado, and Travis County will host the 2023 conference.
For more information on this article, contact Austin McCarty.