BRATTLEBORO — The U.S. Treasury has been pumping billions of dollars into the economy to keep the nation afloat while it wrestles with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, was the first fiscal response to the pandemic, a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill that was signed into law in March of 2020 that included direct payments to taxpayers. In total, the CARES Act directed more than $5 billion to Vermont.
One year later, Congress approved the American Rescue Plan Act, with another $1.9 trillion going to the states. About $200 million of the $1.25 billion going to Vermont is going directly to municipalities, a per capita allocation based on population. In addition to the $1.25 billion, its residents got another direct payment from the federal government and those with children are getting $300 a month per child for the next six months.
And on Aug. 10, the U.S. Senate approved a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, but its passage has been stalled by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s demand that the Senate first agree to a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package that includes climate, health and social priorities. States and municipalities could be the recipients of much of that money as well.
“The amount of money that towns can get is not inconsequential,” said Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, which is working with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns to help municipalities manage the flow of money, especially the pandemic relief funds.
According to the U.S. Treasury, the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds “provide substantial flexibility for each government to meet local needs — including support for households, small businesses, impacted industries, essential workers, and the communities hardest hit by the crisis. These funds can also be used to make necessary investments in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.”
Katie Buckley, the director of the VLCT’s ARPA assistance and coordination program, said her job is to “demystify the ARPA funding for Vermont municipalities.”
“It’s like reading a foreign language,” said Buckley, who said a big part of her job is taking the language of the U.S. Treasury and “turning it into a language any town official can read.”
She said the $200 million going directly to the towns is almost the reverse of a normal funding process.
“With most grants, you have to go through a rigorous community process to develop a project that is ‘well baked,’” said Buckley. “By the time you actually apply for funding and you receive the award, you are ready to get to work. This is a little bit reversed. You are getting the money. You don’t have to compete for it and you have discretion within the guidelines on how you can spend it. You start to have the conversation on how you are going to spend it after you receive it.”
Towns have until the end of 2024 to obligate the money and until the end of 2026 to spend it.
Her advice to towns is “Take the money first and then get the structure in place, and then you can talk to residents and voters about what they want the money spent for. There are real opportunities for communities that wanted to do projects in water, sewer and broadband to move them from an idea to an actual project. Our advice to towns is to be patient, be strategic and thoughtful, and put a good plan in place. You do have a use for this money. Let’s talk this through. Let’s brainstorm.”
And while the towns are getting $200 million straight from the federal government, the Legislature and the governor will decide how the other $1 billion will be spent.
When the state makes its funds available to municipalities, said Campany, smaller towns will need help getting their fair share.
“My concern is if they take the typical ‘Hunger Games’ approach to this, towns that are able to apply for grants with little help will do so and those that can’t won’t and we’ll end up with uneven distribution,” said Campany.
While a town like Brattleboro has the expertise and capacity to advocate for itself, he said, towns like Grafton and Athens, or Halifax and Guilford, might need to get themselves on the same page and advocate together for regional projects to benefit their communities.
“We’d be happy to help them have those conversations,” said Campany, who said WRC will be hosting virtual meetings for the towns, so they can start to understand how they might be eligible for funding and what they can do with the money. Then he hopes to work with interested towns to help them realize their goals.
The funding that is available through the CARES Act and ARPA can’t pay for big projects such as a wastewater treatment plant or to develop affordable housing, said Campany, but it can help pay for engineering and design studies. And if the infrastructure bill makes it through Congress and the budget reconciliation process is completed, there might be money available for the bigger projects, said Campany.
“Maybe they’ve been working on applying for a Community Development Block Grant, or maybe they’re expecting water funds from the state,” he said. “We can help them maximize the money they’re getting from the federal government.”
Campany is also arranging a webinar with the Windham and Windsor Housing Trust to explain to communities how they can leverage federal funding to build affordable housing and the infrastructure needed to support such housing.
“We literally need to think about hundreds and hundreds of units of housing to meet current and projected needs,” said Campany. “And you can’t just put in 200 units where there is no wastewater.”
Campany said the thought of bringing new people into small-town Vermont makes many people blanch.
“I know some towns don’t want to bring more people in, but how are they going to provide for the people who already live there?” he asked. “Do you want your mom or your father or your grandmother to be able to stay here? Do you want your child to be able to stay here and take over the family business? Where are they going to live and who’s going to provide services for an aging population?”
Some of the funding that is in the pipeline can be used on projects like the creation of communications districts that will facilitate the installation of high-speed internet in places such as the Deerfield Valley. These initiatives will make the region more attractive to younger people who want to move out of big cities, said Campany.
More information can be found at http://windhamregional.org/news/arpa-intro.