It’s a crisis of plenty.
Flush with millions in COVID-19 bailout funds, municipal officials across the region all agree there’s hundreds of ways to spend the approximate $130 billion in emergency federal windfalls being sent to cities and towns across the country through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. But when it comes to selecting the most deserving ways to spend that money, opinions quickly diverge.
Just this week, Burlington’s voters agreed to plot a slow and deliberative approach towards expending the community’s $8.55 million slice of ARPA funding by agreeing to appropriate the federal dollars but allocating just $1.5 million of it.
Specifically, during a Town Meeting on Monday night, the assembly agreed to use roughly $500,000 to restore prior year revenue lost due to diminishing local receipts during the worst of the COVID-19 crisis. Under a proposal advanced by town officials, approximately $1.5 million in pandemic-related decreases in townwide revenue sources will be restored to departmental budgets between FY’22 and FY’24.
However, Burlington’s managers are being cautious when it comes to the rest of the funding. According to Town Accountant John Danizio, the current plan is squirrel away roughly $1 million in ARPA money to cover future unanticipated emergency spending needs that might arise from the local response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet another $500,000 is being eyed for local water treatment plan improvements.
But the bulk of the town’s COVID-19 bailout money - or about $5.5 million- will be left untouched until further consideration can be given as to how best to spend it.
Burlington’s neighbors are thus far acting just as cautiously. For example, in Woburn, where Mayor Scott Galvin and the City Council first began discussing the community’s $12 million ARPA distribution back in July, few decisions have been made on how to spend the money.
During a presentation to the aldermen in late July, Woburn’s mayor argued that much of the funding should be set aside to replenish reserve accounts that were drained over the past two years to offset pandemic-related reductions on local receipts.
“There are four or five purposes we can use this funding for. The number one priority from my perspective is to replenish lost revenue [due to the state’s response to COVID-19],” Galvin reasoned during his discussion with the aldermen. “We talked about that issue at budget time. We have a significant amount of lost revenue due to the pandemic and how it impacted some of our businesses.”
Meanwhile, local officials are eyeing the use of at least a portion of the federal money to reduce flooding in and around the city’s busy Four Corners area. Specifically, in late July, the City Council accepted from Woburn’s prominent DeMoulas family a gift of 12-acres of land by the Shaker Glen Conservation area.
Though a combination of state and ARPA funding, local officials intend to restore wetlands areas on the site and thereby alleviate flooding along the community’s busy Lexington Street and Cambridge Road corridors.
In late August, Galvin and the School Committee also announced that a portion of the ARPA allotment will be used to pay for a feasibility study that will result in a longterm capital management plan for the district’s newest and oldest educational facilities.
According to Superintendent Dr. Matthew Crowley and Woburn School Committee member Dr. John Wells, that feasibility study will include a recommendation on what the district should do with its three oldest elementary schools.
At least one of those buildings, closed a few years ago, is being eyed as a potential new home for the district’s administrative offices, while city officials have long hoped to shutter the other two schools by building a brand new facility capable of housing both student populations.
However, as is the case in Burlington, Woburn officials have thus far opted to leave the vast majority of its $12 million ARPA windfall untouched for the time being.
Part of a much larger $1.9 trillion stimulus bill passed by Congress last March in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the ARPA bailout package includes some $350 billion to be used to assist pandemic-related recovery efforts within individual states.
Unlike the federal aid awarded to cities and towns under the previous $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, local cities and towns have quite a bit of discretion in how to spend the newest rounds of ARPA relief funding. However, expenditures must still fall under one of four criterion, which include:
• Pandemic-related public health expenditures, including the hiring of medical or behavioral health personnel;
• To offset the economic impacts created by the pandemic, such as financial harms suffered by small businesses and local families during state-imposed shutdowns;
• Money allocated to replace governmental revenue sources lost as a direct result of the pandemic;
• And for investments in local broadband capabilities or for improvements to water, sewer, and stormwater system infrastructure.
According to local officials, the money being allocated to local cities and towns includes funding set aside for county level governments, which in Massachusetts’ were largely disbanded in 1998.
With virtually all communities within The Middlesex East coverage area dubbed as so-called ‘non-governmental communities”, which is defined as a community with less than 50,000 people, that extra influx in county-level funding in most circumstances exceeds the direct aid awarded to individual cities and towns.
For example, in Woburn, which was eligible for $4 million in direct aid, the ARPA allotment included another $8 million in funding that would have otherwise gone to Middlesex County. In neighboring Stoneham, local officials received about $2.5 million in direct aid, but expects to receive another $4.6 million thanks to its county-level share.
So far, officials in Stoneham and in Reading have not yet formulated a concrete plan for ARPA monies.
Earlier this month, after Stoneham Town Administrator Dennis Sheehan announced Stoneham will receive $7.2 million in COVID bailout funds, Select Board members suggested the townspeople should be solicited for advice on how to spend the money.
According to the town administrator, since Stoneham slashed funding for several positions from its FY’21 budget, the community should at least consider restoring some of those jobs.
Meanwhile, with area residents facing an unexpected increase in water rates largely due to post-COVID changes in consumer habits, Select Board members like George Seibold argued some consideration should be given to discounting the bills for financially-struggling families. Along similar lines, Select Board Chair Heidi Bilbo, referring to expiring state and federal moratoriums on evictions, suggested the exploration of a local rent assistance program.
“It definitely warrants a broader board discussion,” said Bilbo of offering housing assistance.
“We need to take our time and really think through this. Then we can really hammer out where the most need is,” later remarked Stoneham Select Board member Raymie Parker.
Likewise, town leaders in Reading have similarly identified a plethora of potential uses for its $7.6 million share in ARPA distributions.
During a joint meeting of Reading’s Select Board, Finance Committee, and School Committee in early September, town officials considered the possibility of using some of the funding to offset of a new elevated water tank off of Auburn Street.
The group also suggested using the money to provide full-day kindergarten, for the hiring a full-time mental health professional, or for increasing the pay rates for paraprofessionals and substitute teachers.