Upper Valley towns sitting on a pile of American Rescue Plan money, waiting to spend it

  • President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan, a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Andrew Harnik

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/23/2022 10:06:44 PM
Modified: 3/23/2022 10:05:52 PM

Between last year and this one, Enfield is slated to receive two payments of American Rescue Plan Act money totaling $474,349, Town Manager Ed Morse said.

Town officials were unsure what they could use the federal coronavirus economic relief funding for until last month, when the Treasury Department issued new rules. So the first installment of the money has just been sitting.

But when the second installment arrives in June, it will sit, too, Morse said.

“There’s multiple things we could spend it on,” he said, but the town’s Selectboard hasn’t talked about it yet.

Enfield officials aren’t alone in this. For a range of reasons, many towns are waiting to spend the money, which was intended to restore revenue lost during the coronavirus pandemic.

While the complicated rules slowed the use of the first round of funding, some towns also have found that their revenue losses weren’t as severe as they had feared, taking pressure off the need to spend.

There’s also no immediate deadline to use the money: It must be designated to a particular use by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.

“We may use it for some projects coming up,” Morse said, but it hasn’t yet been put on the agenda.

In Hanover, “my advice to the Selectboard has been, ‘Let’s not rush to spend that money,’ ” Town Manager Julia Griffin said.

The $1.2 million Hanover will have received by this summer would cover a rural broadband project on the east side of town, Griffin said. But it’s possible the town will receive money from the federal infrastructure bill that it could use for stringing fiber optic cable, she said. That would allow the Selectboard to put the ARPA money to another use.

Hanover did lose some revenue during the economic downturn engendered by the pandemic, particularly in the town’s parking fund. But by the end of last June, “our fund balances were healthier than we expected them to be,” Griffin said.

She attributed the relative health of the town’s finances to the economic recovery of last spring and summer and a bump in the amount of state meals and rooms tax revenue sent to towns.

Towns will have relatively few restrictions on how they can spend the ARPA money they’re receiving, Griffin said. Stricter accounting rules kick in when communities receive $10 million or more.

“The small towns and communities are kind of chump change compared with the big cities,” she said.

In the long run, the town will likely use the ARPA money for a one-time project.

“We’d love to use it to do something meaningful, significant, and something we’d ordinarily have to wait to do,” Griffin said.

While it’s unclear how the money will be spent, what’s plain is that many towns are sitting on a chunk of money that will contribute to future projects.

Woodstock’s town government will receive more than $600,000 and Woodstock Village will receive more than $250,000, officials said. The town Selectboard and village Trustees plan to meet to discuss how to use the money.

Windsor has received $500,000 so far and will get a second payment of the same sum this year, Town Manager Tom Marsh said. Officials are waiting to see what they’ll receive in infrastructure funds before deciding what to do with the ARPA money, Marsh said.

Chelsea received $193,000 last year and will get a like amount this year. Town officials haven’t yet allocated the funding, but the town Selectboard is considering which projects to pursue.

All told, Hartford officials expect the town to receive $2.85 million in ARPA funding, but the Selectboard hasn’t made any decisions.

“They’ve heard from me that we really do need to focus on infrastructure,” Town Manager Tracy Yarlott-Davis said.

Some towns, however, have put their ARPA funding to use.

Last year, Haverhill received $238,000 and used some of the money to purchase safety gear and put $100,000 toward excess welfare expenses, such as providing shelter housing. This year’s money also will likely go toward police and fire equipment and housing people in need, officials said.

And in Lebanon, officials have moved quickly to deploy the city’s $1.4 million in ARPA funding, City Manager Shaun Mulholland said.

The spending includes $60,000 toward connecting the city’s last 142 homes that lack broadband internet service. Out to bid right now is an estimated $900,000 plan to improve water lines and repave Miracle Mile, the section of Route 10 from O’Reilly Auto Parts to the Terri Dudley Bridge.

“The idea is to get it done before the end of the year,” Mulholland said of the Miracle Mile work, but it could be delayed by supply-chain issues affecting the new water lines.

The city also is paying $152,000 to Vital Communities, the nonprofit organization, to study the child care shortage and how it might be ameliorated. Another $33,000 will go to diversity training for city staff, and $40,000 to the Upper Valley Business Alliance for direct support to businesses.

“The idea was to address some of the immediate issues that are out there,” Mulholland said.

Last year, for example, the city used $115,000 to reopen its public pool, as that funding had been cut from the budget.

Rather than wait for infrastructure funding, city officials opted to go ahead with the Miracle Mile project in an effort to get ahead of further inflation, Mulholland said. When all the other towns and cities are flush with federal ARPA and infrastructure money, “it’s going to be difficult to find contractors,” he said, and prices are likely to have risen.

Valley News reporters Nora Doyle-Burr, Liz Sauchelli, Claire Potter, Patrick O’Grady and Rose Terami contributed to this report.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

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