Helicopters, cash payments and a new public health lab: How state agencies propose spending Virginia’s rescue fund money

The Virginia Capitol at sunrise. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Virginia has $4.3 billion in federal aid to spend and no shortage of ideas.

State agencies hoping to tap into American Rescue Plan funds have submitted wish lists that top more than $18 billion, floating proposals ranging from new helicopters for Virginia State Police to $1,000 cash payments for essential workers. 

Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration hasn’t committed to specific line items, but lawmakers are scheduled to convene next month for a special legislative session to decide how to spend the money. 

Discussions are ongoing over whether some of the requests are or aren’t eligible for the federal dollars, which are supposed to have a direct link to the negative effects of the pandemic.

Furthermore, the federal government has earmarked certain funds for specific purposes, such as combating student learning loss due to schools going virtual during the pandemic. And because the state can spend the funds over several years, policymakers may choose to set some money aside to adapt to future needs. Federal dollars put toward some initiatives may also free up state dollars for others not eligible for relief funding.

Most of the spending proposals put forward, from vaccine outreach and utility assistance to fixing the unemployment system and broadband investment, won’t come as a surprise. 

Other spending suggestions are a little less intuitive — or show agencies trying to use the sudden influx of funds to advance efforts that may have been back-burnered in tighter budget years. 

Here’s a sampling of the proposals that caught Mercury reporters’ eyes.  

Compensation for essential workers
Price tag: $800 million

Labor proposals include a suggestion to give $1,000 “hero grants” to low-wage essential workers who stayed on the job during the pandemic.

The funding request for $700 million doesn’t specify exactly which types of workers might qualify, but notes that “premium pay” for essential workers is an explicitly authorized use of the funds.

Higher education officials have also requested up to $100 million for “hero scholarships” to help essential workers who want to further their education. The proposal suggests giving up to $5,000 per year to assist essential workers with getting a GED or college degree.

Jason Chadwick, left, who has worked for Kroger for 20 years, leads other workers in a chant demanding the reinstatement of hazard pay during a protest outside of the Kroger on Lombardy in Richmond, Va., September 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boye / For the Virginia Mercury)

COVID resources for non-native English speakers
Price tag: $21 million

A persistent complaint throughout the pandemic has been the state’s dependence on automatic (and often shoddy) translations to provide information about the spread of COVID-19 and roll out of vaccines to non-English speakers.

The approach at one point led the Virginia Department of Health to inform Spanish speakers that “the vaccine is not necessary” where English speakers were informed that it is not required.

Northam’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion proposes setting aside $5 million a year to pay for translation services, as well as hiring a coordinator to create a statewide language access plan for translation needs for state agencies. The office also proposes hiring two full time American Sign Language interpreters and a coordinator dedicated to “incorporating people with disabilities and other access and functional needs” into the state’s emergency and recovery plans.

The rescue fund money would cover four years of work.

A bailout for the state’s unemployment trust fund
Price tag: $1.3 billion

One of the biggest single requests comes by way of the Virginia Employment Commission, which wants $1.3 billion to restore the state’s unemployment trust fund to pre-pandemic levels.

The state relies on the fund to pay for unemployment benefits, which saw an unprecedented 1.3 million initial claims last year and another 300,000 already this year — more than double the applications for assistance the state saw in all of 2019.

The fund would otherwise be rebuilt through a series of hefty payroll tax increases on businesses. And state leaders and the business community have already called heading that off a top priority.

A parking lot outside a UVA dorm was filled with hundreds of state police cruisers in advance of the one year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in 2017. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Aug. 8, 2018)

Body cameras and helicopters for state police
Price tag: $40 million

In one of the more tangentially pandemic-related requests, Virginia State Police asked for $19 million to roll out body cameras to their officers.

The department argued that “vulnerable social populations” have seen some of the biggest impacts from COVID and have some of the lowest rates of vaccine acceptance “due to fears and skepticism towards government resulting from systemic marginalization.”

The agency proposes that body cameras will help because they foster transparency that in turn “will establish trust in government and mitigate future spread of COVID-19.”

Their justification for requesting two new helicopters at a cost of $21 million was more clear cut. The agency says they will replace two older units currently used for medical evacuation flights that were “experiencing unacceptable downtime” and “impacting the department’s ability to provide air ambulance services during the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

Highway improvements between Richmond and Williamsburg
Price tag: $100 million

The only major road project included in the funding requests is the continued widening of Interstate 64 between Richmond and Williamsburg.

Specifically, transportation planners are suggesting $100 million to help with the costs of widening the interstate in a 29-mile stretch between New Kent County and Williamsburg.

Mitigating congestion on I-64 has been a top priority for Hampton Roads-area leaders.

The request specifies that the new improvements would begin around Exit 205 in New Kent, where a previous widening project between Richmond and New Kent ended in 2019, and continue to exit 234 near Williamsburg.

Capital projects unrelated to COVID-19 generally aren’t intended to be funded through the American Rescue Plan, but the act gives states leeway to spend money on things like roads if the pandemic affected government revenue sources that would typically pay for them.

Mapping overlaps between historic inequities and urban green spaces
Price tag: $500,000

In 2020, a study co-authored by Science Museum of Virginia chief scientist Jeremy Hoffman made national headlines when it found that neighborhoods federal housing officials historically classified as “hazardous” because of their high proportion of low-income and minority residents are hotter than other neighborhoods

The classification, known as redlining, was used by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation between the 1930s and 1968 to guide banks on granting mortgages to homebuyers and led to wide racial gaps in homeownership. 

It also contributed to higher temperatures today in historically minority or disadvantaged neighborhoods, where shade-providing trees are in short supply and large swathes of land have been paved. 

Now the Virginia Department of Forestry wants to use $500,000 to develop heat island maps that pinpoint where higher temperatures overlap with formerly redlined neighborhoods. 

The agency says that “federal guidance aligns funding” with projects such as those that aim to create green infrastructure and improve water quality, both of which can be achieved by planting trees and other flora. 

An electric vehicle charges at a public station in Henrico County, July 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Electric vehicle infrastructure
Price tag: $33.3 million

With federal guidelines allowing funds to be used to replace lost public sector revenues for services including infrastructure, the Department of Transportation is proposing a hefty investment of $33.3 million in electric vehicle infrastructure. 

Democrats in the General Assembly and the Northam administration spent the last legislative session pushing electric vehicles as a way to reduce transportation emissions, Virginia’s largest contributor to carbon emissions. 

Money was a sticking point, though. Lawmakers acknowledged that infrastructure is lacking in many rural areas. And although the General Assembly signed off on an electric vehicle rebate program, legislators left it unfunded, a situation the law’s sponsor attributed to tight pandemic budgets. 

A tour of the construction of the new Highland Springs High School in Henrico, estimated to cost about $80 million. (Henrico County Public Schools)

School construction and improvements
Price tag: $2.6 billion

Even before the pandemic, school construction was a major issue in Virginia. A recent survey from the state’s Department of Education found that more than half of public school buildings are more than 50 years old. Replacing those aging structures is estimated to cost the state more than $24.7 billion.

Enter the American Rescue Plan. The federal government set aside specific funds for pandemic-related improvements, including new HVAC systems, but VDOE proposes dedicating an additional $2 billion for more general renovation projects. That money would be delivered to local school divisions through a competitive grant fund, according to the agency’s request.

The department is also requesting an additional $600 million for improvements in early and higher education. The majority of that — $500 million over the next three years — would go toward capital improvements for “successful” child care operators, “allowing them to serve additional children and help more parents get back to work.” 

Another $100 million is proposed for modernization efforts at the state’s public colleges and universities, from updated heating systems to new equipment and technology.

A new public health lab
Price tag: $275 million

Virginia’s public health laboratory — once mostly a site for specialized testing and tracking rare diseases — has taken on a whole new importance throughout the pandemic. 

For the first critical weeks, it was the only lab in the state that could test for COVID-19. And over the past year and a half, its responsibilities have expanded dramatically, from sequencing samples of the virus to rapidly detecting new variants.

The Virginia Department of General Services wants to expand those capabilities even further. The agency is asking for $275 million to replace the state’s aging site in downtown Richmond with a “state-of-the-art” new laboratory in Petersburg. The proposed location is on the same campus as Central State Hospital, a state-run psychiatric facility that’s currently undergoing a major renovation. And it would boost capacity for complex and high-volume testing, which is already “nearing its limit” at the existing lab, according to DGS.

A public health emergency fund
Price tag: $10 million

The scramble to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic can be traced, in large part, to decades of underfunding in public health. As Virginia was recording its first cases, some health departments in low-income counties were abruptly closing their doors. And across the state, employees were pulled from critical services like maternal health and environmental monitoring to serve as case investigators or contract tracers.

In those early days, the Virginia Department of Health said it lacked the funding to “quickly ramp up an appropriate operational response.” Now, the agency is requesting $10 million for a public health emergency fund. The money might not be used immediately, but leaders say it would give the department more agility to respond to future pandemics.

Eastern State Hospital in James City County (Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services)

Staffing at state mental hospitals
Price tag: $335.5 million

Virginia’s state-run mental hospitals have been struggling for years with rising admissions. But the COVID-19 pandemic pushed them into crisis mode, with outbreaks making it even more challenging to discharge patients and free up bed space. 

That high patient volume, combined with chronic staffing shortages, have made the facilities “tremendously unsafe,” according to Alison Land, commissioner of the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. The agency is requesting more than $300 million over the next several years to boost employment, the majority of which would go to salary increases for essential frontline workers. Another $24 million would be dedicated to security guards and safety improvements at aging facilities.

The department is also requesting millions for community mental health services — part of an ongoing effort to reduce admissions through better front-end treatment. But staffing needs have often been framed as one of the most urgent challenges facing Virginia’s beleaguered mental hospitals.

The sun sets over the James River in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Septic and sewer overflow repairs and replacements
Price tag: $230 million

One of the biggest-ticket items Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality has on its wish list is $230 million to help repair and replace failing septic systems, pipes that send waste directly into waterways and “combined sewer overflow” systems that can lead to sewage releases during heavy rainfall.

The federal rescue plan “specifically lists water and wastewater infrastructure as an eligible use,” DEQ says in its justification for the request. 

Of the $230 million, DEQ wants to see $30 million go to Richmond to speed up its ongoing overhaul of the city’s combined sewer overflow system. The agency has also identified $35 million worth of sewage system fixes in Southwest Virginia, as well as millions of dollars of investment in wastewater connections for underserved communities in Surry, Middlesex, Northampton and Accomack counties.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing. She previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress, and her work has been twice honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Institute and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association. Contact him at [email protected]

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