As towns across Connecticut begin receiving the first portion of $1.5 billion in federal aid directed toward local governments, they are debating how to balance their short- and long-term needs — spending money to help residents and businesses still struggling under the burden of efforts to control the spread of COVID-19, and on capital projects that will help their communities for years to come.
Haddam – which is set to receive $2.4 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA – has its eye on capital projects, including a community septic system in the Higganum Center business district. The town took over the Haddam Elementary School after it was closed in 2019 because the property has a sandy soil that’s excellent for septic systems, said Haddam First Selectman Robert McGarry.
“In Higganum Center, most of the businesses are built on industrial fill, which is lousy for septic systems,” McGarry said. “So this allowed an option for us to install septic capabilities so businesses with either failing systems or with a change of use could tap into it.”
Haddam received a $128,000 grant from the Connecticut Department of Public Health to design the system, and has put out a request for proposals for engineering firms for the project, he said. There isn’t a cost estimate for that project at this point, but it would be eligible for the ARPA funds, McGarry said.
“It’s not as simple as okay, just put a big septic tank in the ground in a big leach field, and run some pipe and everyone can hook up to it like you would a sewer system,” McGarry said. “Depending on how much the town wants to foot out of the total bill, do we put tanks in the ground, do we run piping to various areas, a conduit under the state highway, so private businesses don’t have to do that? Those things have yet to be worked out.”
McGarry said Haddam is talking with other towns in the Lower Connecticut River Council of Governments about pooling together some of their relief funds to give grants or loans to businesses to offset the hits they took during the pandemic – but there aren’t any concrete plans yet.
Portland, is considering using part of its $2.7 million in ARPA funds to repair its aging water infrastructure, but hasn’t taken any action towards spending that money, First Selectwoman Susan Bransfield said. Portland, and other towns like Killingworth, are waiting for more guidance on how the money can be spent before making any recommendations for how their towns will spend the money.
Essex First Selectman Norm Needleman said the town has approved some spending of the ARPA funding despite a lack of guidance to the town. Essex is approving funding for items with backup plans in place if they end up not being allowed.
“The hard part is, you won’t know what is and what isn’t approved until you’re audited, if anybody ever gets audited,” Needleman said. “We’re not using the money for anything that I think anybody would have any question about, but we just like to be clear about what our options are.”
Essex, which is receiving $1.97 million in ARPA funds, has earmarked portions of the funding for public safety costs, including $75,000 to buy a new police car and $25,000 to replace the antennas on the Essex Town Hall building.
Needleman said the town was also considering using a portion of ARPA money to buy new air packs for the fire department. Because the town didn’t have enough PPE in the first several months of the pandemic, the fire department had to fully suit up every time they went on a medical call, which put more use on the air packs than intended, he said.
Essex is also using $35,000 of ARPA funds to pay for counseling in the fire department. Needleman said the incredible amount of stress put on the department during the pandemic highlighted the stress that was already there, and they wanted to make sure the counseling was paid for.
Other towns are waiting to see how much of the funding can be spent replacing revenues lost during COVID. In Guilford, First Selectman Matt Hoey said he doesn’t expect the revenue replacement will be a “significant amount” of the town’s $6.5 million share, but they’re still working out what the exact numbers are over the last two fiscal years.
In East Lyme, First Selectman Mark Nickerson, who is not running for re-election this fall, announced in July that he does not intend to spend all of the money earmarked for the town this year.
“Once the new first selectman is seated, and the new Board of Selectmen is sitting here, there will be a committee formed on how to spend the $5.4 million,” Nickerson said. “It’s a burden to spend. It’s very difficult to spend that within the parameters, and to spend it wisely and properly. I think a committee will be formed to do that.”
East Lyme is holding a town meeting on Tuesday seeking approval to use $200,000 of its $5.4 million in ARPA funds to replace the roof on the public safety building that is under renovation.
Nickerson said there had been discussions about using the ARPA funds on immediate needs like mental health resources and food security in the community, and on electronic equipment to hold hybrid town meetings. He said he would look to patch the immediate needs in his final months in office, but would leave the next four years of spending up to the next administration.
In New London, where the city is in line to receive $26.2 million in funding, the city has put out an electronic survey in English and Spanish to ask residents how they think the money should be spent, and to gauge how residents were affected the most, and what needs are still unmet due to COVID. The survey also asks whether the city should focus on programs that will benefit the community in the long-term, or focus more on current needs.
“We encourage residents and business owners to complete the survey so we know where their pain points are,” Mayor Michael Passero said in a news release. “Once we know this, we will be able to utilize the funds as effectively as possible.”
In Guilford, the town has compiled a list of priorities for spending the money, including putting together a group of faith leaders and social services agencies to consider how to funnel money into community nonprofits and individual households.
Hoey said he wanted to use the ARPA funds to create endowments for philanthropic organizations in town, like the Shoreline Foundation, that would have a long-term impact on the community. The town could also look at bolstering existing rental, utility and food assistance programs, he said.
“The Guilford Foundation early on in COVID set up a fund where folks could apply for $500 cash assistance grants,” Hoey said. “We would love to do something similar to that with a consultant that we would potentially bring on to manage these kinds of programs.”
Guilford is also looking at spending some of the money on economic development, like a possible advertising and marketing campaign for the Guilford Green and its businesses, or hosting events on the green.