EAST LYME – A request by the East Lyme Board of Selectmen to distribute $1.014 million of the town’s federal aid from the American Rescue Plan Act may have to wait until after municipal elections in November after the Board of Finance voted 4-2 to postpone a vote on the proposed spending on Wednesday night.
Board of Finance Chair Camille Alberti – who is running as the Democratic candidate for First Selectman – pushed for the board to hold off on voting on the proposal to appropriate over $1 million of the $5.4 million in federal ARPA money East Lyme will receive.
Alberti expressed concern about the Board of Selectmen’s process for deciding on a list of projects to receive funding. She also raised the issue of a previous disbursement of funding that she says violated eligibility rules for the aid. In that case, Save the River, Save the Hills intended to use $12,500 in ARPA money to provide a 25 percent match to a federal grant to buy a pump boat.The funding was approved at a town meeting on Oct. 7, but according to Alberti, when she spoke on Wednesday to Kate Brown, the Clean Vessel Act coordinator with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Brown made it clear that ARPA funds could not be used to match other federal grant money.
Alberti said the issue could be resolved easily by sending the request back to the Board of Selectmen to use contingency funds, but Alberti said that the confusion left her concerned with the Board of Selectmen’s process for vetting and prioritizing requests for ARPA funds.
Alberti asked the board to hold off on voting on the requests until the Board of Selectmen gave the Board of Finance a strategy for how the remaining ARPA funds would be spent.
“Without an overarching plan and some sort of process to prioritize different requests, we don’t know if we’re going to be caught in a situation where somebody is going to be left out of the pool for ARPA,” Alberti told CT Examiner. “We don’t believe that every organization that could be awarded these funds is even aware of them.”
Selectmen Kevin Seery, who is running against Alberti as the Republican candidate for First Selectman, told the Board of Finance that the selectmen felt the funding should move forward as quickly as possible given that the projects are eligible for ARPA funds.
“There’s a safety aspect as well,” Seery said. “The clinical therapists, the wellness prevention, those are things we felt there was an immediate need for.”
The town previously approved $126,053 of ARPA funds for a list of items including the boat for Save the River, Save the Hills, funding for Ledge Light Health District, American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the New London Homeless Hospitality Center. The town also used $200,000 of the ARPA money to replace the roof on the public safety building.
That spending was identified as critical needs by the Board of Selectmen, Seery said, as were the $1.014 million of requests presented to the board on Wednesday – which included $920,000 to rebuild one of the town wells, $30,000 to support Niantic Main Street, $4,000 to the Care & Share food pantry, and $60,000 to the town clerk to digitize land records.
According to Seery, the well project was a critical need given how much its production had deteriorated, and because winter is the best time to replace it in case there was a problem that affected any of the town’s other wells.
“Water infrastructure improvements are critical, and this has to be done, whether it’s through ARPA funds or the Water and Sewer Commission bonds for the funds,” Seery told CT Examiner.
Care and Share needs to replace an old freezer, Seery said, and they are coming up on a time of year when they will have to store a lot of frozen foods and serve dinners for Thanksgiving and Christmas, so the selectmen wanted to make sure they had the freezer in time for that.
Seery told the Board of Finance that the selectmen didn’t sit down to come up with a system to prioritize requests, the idea was to address the immediate needs in the community before the election took place, and then let the new administration handle the funds. He said the selectmen reached out to organizations they felt were the most in need to gather requests for funding.
“My personal preference would be to sit down with the department heads and get their take, and then reach out to the seniors and groups like that to see if they can be the network to reach out into their community to see where help might be needed, but that did not happen,” Seery said.
Board of Finance member Anne Santoro, one of the two who voted against tabling the requests, said she felt the Board of Selectmen were clear on their process, and that they were going to prioritize immediate needs like food insecurity, physical and mental health, and with organizations like Main Street Niantic that had lost the opportunity to fundraise. “I don’t feel as though there is anything here that somehow wasn’t part of a prioritization process, or the public didn’t have input on,” Santoro said.
Alberti told CT Examiner that she believes the requests could still be approved before the election on Nov. 2 because the Board of Selectmen have three meetings before then to come up with a “strategic plan” to give the Board of Finance more confidence in moving forward.
Seery told CT Examiner that he does not think the selectmen would be able to come up with that plan before the election, and that the intention was always to have whoever replaces First Selectmen Mark Nickerson manage the bulk of the ARPA funds.
“If they don’t come up with a plan, nothing is going to happen before Election Day,” Alberti said. “After Election Day, the new administration would come up with a plan, so one way or another, these things can get approved by the end of the year. It’s just that we would like to see a more strategic approach to how this money is disseminated.”