While Jackson County’s decision to spend federal COVID relief money on body cameras and tasers for sheriff’s deputies could raise some concerns, county officials say it’s perfectly legal.
Over the next five years, Jackson County plans to use more than $1.2 million of its roughly $8.5 million American Rescue Plan Act funds to purchase 77 total body cameras and tasers and 24 vehicle cameras made by Axon, County Manager Don Adams said.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury designed ARPA to help communities recover from the pandemic, but not all expenses have to be directly related to COVID.
In addition to the cameras and tasers, Jackson County will also use more than $2.1 million of its ARPA funds to match a Dogwood Health Trust grant for the construction of a domestic violence center.
Non-COVID expenses funded with ARPA
In order to be covered by ARPA money, projects must fall into one of four buckets — COVID recovery, infrastructure improvements, premium pay and revenue loss. The “revenue loss” category is where guidelines get murky.
“States and localities have a ton of flexibility that was built in by creating this revenue loss provision,” a U.S. Treasury Department official told Carolina Public Press last week.
“As long as they are reporting to us where the funds are coming from, they have pretty big leeway.”
County governments, whose ARPA allocations were determined by population, can use the money for “revenue loss” even if they didn’t actually lose revenue.
Jackson County, for example, did not see negative revenue impacts from COVID, county officials say. According to the county’s annual audit, Jackson’s total net position increased by $12.7 million, and its long-term debt decreased by $3.9 million in fiscal year 2020-21.
If local governments use the relief money for revenue loss, they’re able to move up to $10 million in ARPA funds into their operating budget. Internal budgets are subject to less federal scrutiny, which is how governments are able to use the money for non-COVID expenses.
That’s why Jackson County can spend what is technically considered COVID recovery money on new gear for law enforcement.
While purchasing the gear with ARPA money is technically legitimate and not likely to invite a federal audit, it could prompt a deeper discussion about whether governments in areas that didn’t experience a negative revenue impact from the pandemic should be able to claim “revenue loss” in order to pay for non-COVID-related projects.
“Some states are building prisons, for example,” the Treasury official said. “We have made clear — we put in our final rule — that we do not think that that’s (in) the spirit of what these funds are for. … There are a lot better ways to use this money in our view. But if they’re using revenue loss, legally they can do that.”
Adams said Jackson County can attribute revenue loss and use ARPA funds for law enforcement because the cameras and tasers are related to public safety, which the Treasury deems an appropriate use for the funds.
“The rules work that you turn around and you extend those (revenue replacement) funds for general governmental purposes,” Adams said.
“Even the interim rules identify public safety as eligible expenses under that category. (The cameras) were a need. It’s something that the sheriff was really looking at and looking to move forward with. It’s something that is going to provide safety.”
The need for body cams
Jackson County is one of the few sheriff’s offices in Western North Carolina that does not currently have body cameras for deputies. Burke, Haywood, McDowell, Swain and Yancey also don’t have the devices, according to the counties.
The State Bureau of Investigation’s most recent report showed Jackson County to have a crime rate of 3,131.9 offenses per 100,000 residents in 2020. That’s higher than the state of North Carolina’s crime rate, which was 2,775.5 offenses per 100,000 residents.
“At the end of the day, (the cameras) are really going to provide for the safety of the officer,” Adams said.
“But they’re going to provide for accountability and for the safety of citizens, too.”
The effectiveness of body cameras to reduce crime or protect officers is up for debate. According to a study published in 2020 by George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, there’s little statistical evidence to prove that body cameras affect officer or citizen behavior.
Jackson County Sheriff Chip Hall did not respond to Carolina Public Press’ questions about why the cameras were needed or if there had been specific incidents in which the cameras would have benefited either the deputy or citizen.