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The Central Valley News Collaborative is a project of The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, KVPR and Radio Bilingüe.

Merced County residents ask for review of COVID relief spending plans

Joe Moore

MERCED, Calif. – Merced County residents are at odds with a county spending plan that uses federal COVID relief funds. This month, a group of residents submitted a letter to the U.S. Department of Treasury asking the agency to review how the county is using funds it received from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.

The Biden administration approved ARPA in order to provide emergency grants, lending, and investment for afflicted communities related to COVID-19 recovery.

Merced County was granted $53.9 million last year by the federal government to relieve public health and economic disparities it faced in the early stages of the pandemic. But in a letter to the U.S. Treasury, residents and local nonprofits argue the county hasn’t used the funds accordingly. The group says the county used the funds toward constructing a new correctional facility and to replace lost revenue.

ARPA was our hope of bringing services, resources during COVID and to not lose so many people to that illness,” said Patricia Ramos-Anderson, a resident of the community of Santa Nella. “But it didn't happen.”

Ramos-Anderson is among 100 other residents who signed onto the letter, asking the federal agency to step in and address the county’s use of the funds.

But the county refutes the accusation, and says it has appropriately spent the funds.

Merced County spokesman Mike North said in an email it did extensive public outreach, including hosting in-person workshops and sending out online surveys, to determine how to best use the money.

Based on that community input, North said, residents wanted the funding to go toward repairing roads, creating community facilities and limiting the spread of COVID-19.

The county says all the funding it received is categorized as “revenue replacement” in its annual budget to sustain projects it set out to complete prior to the pandemic, such as road repair and expanding services to the unhoused.

“These are all areas that would have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, if not for the ARPA revenue that we received,” North said.

North also said the county did not intend to use ARPA funding to construct and renovate the correctional facility.

But residents like Ramos-Anderson are at odds about the spending. She said she would have liked to see the funding go toward expanding transportation and building new clinics in places like the unincorporated community of Santa Nella. She said, oftentimes, she and her neighbors have to travel outside the community to receive medical care.

“There's no accountability, no transparency,” Ramos-Anderson said. “Where is that money going?”

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Esther Quintanilla reports on diverse communities for KVPR through the Central Valley News Collaborative, which includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, KVPR and Radio Bilingüe.