A process for spending almost $12 million that the Town of Amherst is receiving under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) will be discussed by the Town Council on July 12. According to an earlier memo from Town Manager Paul Bockelman, the funding will come in two tranches with 50% available now and 50% available 12 months after the first payment is received.The grant funds are intended to “address the physical and economic impacts of the pandemic and lay a foundation for a strong and equitable recovery,” and must be incurred by the end of 2024 and expended by the end of 2026.
At their meeting on July 6, the Finance Committee affirmed an initial list of expenditures proposed by the Town Manager estimated at $1.4 million, and recommended that the Town Council approve the process and timeline for allocation of the remainder of the first tranche. The process assigns the Town Manager and his staff broad leeway over expenditure decisions.
Included in the initial $1.4 million is $900,000 to replace lost revenue in the sewer and parking funds, $250,000 for the Community Responder (CRESS) Program, and $100,000 for a Capital projects manager. Smaller amounts are earmarked for extra help at Cherry Hill golf course, a Diversity Equity & Inclusion Coordinator, staff transition support due to a number of key retirements, a sustainability intern, and community participation officer outreach.
Allocation of the remaining $4.6 million in the first tranche will be identified through the new process, the first step of which is for the Town Manager, along with department heads, to create an ARPA Action Plan by October. According to Comptroller Sonia Aldrich, the manager will engage the Business Improvement District, Chamber of Commerce, Housing Authority, and social services organizations when drafting the plan. Finance Director Sean Mangano suggested there may also be a listening session so the community can offer feedback and input before the plan is finalized.
“The Town Manager needs to come back with prioritized needs and a spending plan,” said Councilor Lynn Griesemer. “People are lining up already to apply for these funds. We need to be clear what is going to be allocated and for what purposes, both for the town and beyond the town.”
According to the Finance Committee report, the action plan will determine what share of the first tranche will be allocated toward the Town budget and services, and what share, if any, will be for community needs. If some portion of the funding is recommended for community needs, an advisory group would be formed by the Town Manager in January 2022 to solicit and evaluate public proposals and make recommendations.
The Finance Committee recommended the advisory group include Town Councilors, resident members of the Finance Committee, finance staff, and members of the BIPOC community. Councilor Cathy Schoen suggested adding a stipulation that Councilors not be part of the advisory group, which she said was supported by Councilors Pat De Angelis and Lynn Griesemer. Chair Andy Steinberg, with support from Griesemer, left off the stipulation, noting that the advisory group would be formed after the council election this fall.
To Councilor Dorothy Pam, the timeline seemed drawn out. “I’m in the mind to spend money more quickly,” Pam said.
Finance Director Sean Mangano responded that the initial $1.4 million is time sensitive but he thought creation of the action plan for the remaining funds will take time.
Other potential uses of the funds were floated. For example, De Angelis asked if ARPA funds could be used to replace the fire department’s ladder truck, and Griesemer asked if it could fund additional firefighter positions or community responders. Schoen suggested evaluating the drop in revenues in the Ambulance Fund. “That might help pay for some overtime or other things that the fire department is stressed to do within their current budget,” she said.
“Things that we would have funded if we had the money are eligible,” Mangano said.
Similarly, smaller capital projects and water or sewer infrastructure projects like the Centennial Water Treatment Plant would likely be eligible, Mangano said. He cautioned, however, that whatever is funded out of ARPA monies, they would need to ensure it is sustainable and can be folded into the operating budget when the grant runs out in three years.