Arkansas lawmakers question federal COVID spending

Arkansas lawmakers said they want answers about spending for senior citizen centers before they approve another request for American Rescue Plan Act funds.

During a Tuesday Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee meeting of the Arkansas Legislative Council, members voted to hold a $628,878 funding request from the Department of Human Services Division of Aging, Adult, and Behavioral Health until representatives from the agency could sit down with the joint public health committees to discuss their finances.

The division used the money "to recruit, hire, and train public health workers to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for future public health challenges," according to the funding request.

"The important thing is we've got areas in the state of Arkansas, our senior citizen centers are shutting down because they don't have the funds that they need to actually feed the people that live there," said Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio. "My issue with hiring more people is, are we again putting more money into individuals working and not putting money where we're actually feeding people who need these meals?"

Vaught said the question has come up in the subcommittee "several different times" how much money is spent on administration fees and other similar fees versus the money spent to feed senior citizens.

"In my area, my senior citizen centers are always having fundraisers to even feed the people that are there, which is devastating to me that we as a state are not providing enough money to feed the elderly in these areas," Vaught said, adding: "I don't want us to get lopsided where we're spending way more money on administration costs and people being hired costs than what we are on feeding individuals who need these meals to live."

Rep. Frances Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, asked whether administrators understood the money would be a one-time appropriation.

"We get emails constantly about programs having to cease because they don't have the funding to go on. We get emails constantly saying that we cut their funding. We haven't cut their funding," Cavenaugh said. "The funding they are not receiving is the funding from CARES and COVID. And I think a lot of times the centers don't understand where their own funding comes from and when they use one-time funding for ongoing expenses, that's something that they seem to want to work into their budget that's not going to be there."

Director Jay Hill of DAABHS said they make it "very clear" the money is one-time funding.

Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, said it looked like money going toward senior centers was "getting eaten up by administrative and employment costs."

"I'm not comfortable, to be quite frank, approving this until they have representatives here that can come and answer to us about how they are spending their money and how they are supporting these senior centers and providing the services that they're supposed to be providing without the constant issues that our senior centers are facing," Irvin said.

In June, the subcommittee approved eight appropriation requests from DAABHS. Just over $1 million went toward congregate meals and $904,978 paid for home-delivered meals, according to the ARPA Steering Committee's monthly report.

The committee approved $12.2 million for community mental health services, $629,157 for caregivers, $156,010 for preventative health, more than $9.6 million for substance abuse prevention and treatment, more than $1.3 million for supportive services and $39,595 for an ombudsman, the report said.

Arkansas had $1.6 billion in ARPA funds appropriated for fiscal year 2022 and another $1.6 billion for 2023. Lawmakers appropriated $1.2 billion for FY 2024, according to the report.


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