Vehicles travel down East Main Street in Franklin, the county seat of Macon County. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

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Macon County’s only plan for its American Rescue Plan Act money is funding what County Manager Derek Roland called Macon’s “most valuable asset” — its employees.

During an Oct. 12, meeting, Macon County commissioners unanimously heeded Roland’s recommendation and approved a plan to spend the county’s $6.9 million in ARPA funds on premium pay for all county workers — with the exception of school employees, who, Roland said, could receive bonuses through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. 

The plan includes giving each employee, including Roland, $2 for every hour worked from April 26, 2021, through Oct. 20, 2024, excluding sick and vacation days.  According to meeting documents, the payments will be seven lump sums delivered in six-month increments. 

So far, 360 full-time and 127 seasonal or part-time county employees have received the bonuses, according to the county.

“It is these men and women … (who) have gotten us up to where we are now during this pandemic,” Roland said during the Oct. 12 meeting. “And this legislation recognizes that they’re going to be the ones that take us through to the finish line.”

Premium pay is one of the four allowable ways for local governments to spend ARPA funds, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The others — infrastructure improvements, revenue loss and COVID recovery — are not immediate needs in Macon County, Roland said. 

According to a 2020-21 financial report, Macon County’s economy fared relatively well despite the pandemic with improved retail sales, an increased labor force and a 4.2% unemployment rate in June 2021 — down from 11.3% in April 2020. 

“This pandemic has had the exact opposite effect that everyone has anticipated,” Roland said. “There’s a chicken in every pot and a Cadillac in every garage.” 

The virus itself also has not had as grave of an impact in Macon County as it has in many other North Carolina counties.

According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, Macon County’s positive COVID cases per 10,000 residents was 1,918.7 as of Feb. 4. Neighboring counties — Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson and Swain — had higher percentages. 

“Our Health Department, combined with our Emergency Medical Services, has done an excellent job running the testing and vaccine campaigns,” Roland said during an interview Monday. 

“The Health Department has used a lot of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (funds) as money towards vaccination and testing. 

“That leaves premium pay. I would contest that there’s nothing better that we can do with these funds than invest them in our most valuable asset. It just makes sense.”

Full-time employees could receive a $2,160 bonus every six months if they work 40 hours per week. That’s roughly $15,000 total after all seven payments. Part-time staff who work 20 hours for six months could receive $1,080, adding up to $7,560 total by December 2024. 

The one-year cost of the bonuses is nearly $1.97 million, and the total cost is roughly $6.88 million, which would leave Macon County with only about $76,400 leftover ARPA money. Roland said the county has not yet discussed whether the leftover money would be used or returned to the federal government.

ARPA for bonuses across Western NC

While Macon is currently the only Western North Carolina county that has officially dedicated all of its ARPA funds to employee pay, Swain County plans to follow suit and use its $2.7 million for the same purpose, according to County Manager Kevin King, who said Swain has already distributed some payments to essential workers.

At least four other counties have allocated some of the funds to bonuses.

Buncombe County reserved $1.04 million of its more than $50 million in ARPA funds for a one-time bonus for first responders and front-facing staff providing mandatory services who worked for the county from March 2020 to March 2021, Buncombe’s latest ARPA spending report showed. 

The bonuses were distributed Dec. 31 and ranged from $1,000 to $3,000, depending on the level of COVID exposure, said Rachael Nygaard, Buncombe County director of strategic partnerships. 

Cherokee County gave bonuses that varied from $600 to $3,000 depending on how long staff worked during the pandemic to 132 Health Department and Sheriff’s Office employees, Cherokee County Finance Director Candy Anderson said. 

Additionally, Cherokee is using ARPA funds to give bonuses to emergency medical services employees who pick up open shifts. Those who pick up a 24-hour shift receive $250 and those who pick up a 12-hour shift get $125. 

“This was to help ensure that we had all of our ambulance shifts fully staffed,” Anderson said.

As of Feb. 3, Anderson said, Cherokee County spent $767,513 on payroll bonuses. The total expected cost of premium pay, according to county documents, is more than $2.7 million. Cherokee County will receive more than $5.5 million in ARPA funds through 2024. 

McDowell County has given bonuses totaling $83,680 to 77 EMS employees who participated in certain activities such as staffing vaccination clinics and picking up open shifts, the county’s finance director, Alison Bell, said. 

Graham County, which has the smallest population in WNC and consequently received the least amount of ARPA funds from the U.S. Treasury, used $553,469 of its $1.6 million ARPA funds on premium pay for EMS workers and Health Department employees as of October, commission meeting documents showed.

Shelby Harris

Shelby Harris a Carolina Public Press staff writer, based in Asheville. Email her at sharris@carolinapublicpress.org to contact her.