DEEP RIVER — Instead of new sidewalks, this year Deep River is hoping to receive a $119,000 Small Town Economic Assistance (STEAP) grant from the state to assist the town in making meetings more accessible to the public.
“With this proposed request we will have a couple of cameras and microphones so that people on zoom will be able to hear and see those at the meeting and those in the town hall will be able to hear and see those on zoom,” said Angus McDonald, first selectman of Deep River.
Six months ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic policies moved all town business online, the town realized how inadequate their electronic infrastructure was to support remote meetings. Participants often had trouble hearing or seeing others in the meetings making discussion and voting especially difficult.
And Deep River was by no means alone.
Almost every small town across the state soon realized this spring that they needed to upgrade their technology. In response, the Office of Policy and Management added a provision that for one year only STEAP grants could be used not just for physical infrastructure upgrades — like sidewalks, streetscapes, reconstruction of public parks or playgrounds and revitalization of historic villages or downtowns – but also for capital expenditures related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The cost of cameras, microphones and three electronic street signs to advertise town meetings can really add up, said McDonald.
“The reason that we did this as opposed to additional sidewalks or other infrastructure is because this is pretty expensive stuff,” he said. “For the first time the state allowed for the STEAP grant to include this type of expense and we don’t know if that will happen again.”
The provision allows and encourages towns to apply for both reimbursement and for new expenses related to COVID-19. Whether or not projects like Deep River will be the majority of what is approved, however, has yet to be seen. According to Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, those decisions should be announced by the state by the end of September.
If Deep River’s grant is approved, McDonald said he expects to continue offering remote access to meetings to increase regular attendance and participation.
“This is something that I think over the course of the last 6 months we’ve really noticed, attendance at our meetings is greater. There are folks that don’t come out to the meeting but they would attend remotely, and will have COVID too,” he said. “We want to encourage attendance and participation.”