Hard-hit cities seek long-term changes with federal recovery money

Cities ask residents how to prioritize spending

This is the second in a three-part series on how municipalities are spending ARPA money. Read the first story on small towns here

WHEN COVID-19 HIT Revere, so did hunger for many residents. City officials had decades ago given a building to a nonprofit which no longer needed it. So the city set up a food distribution center there and ran a weekly food bank.

Now, as the city emerges from the pandemic, Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo said he hopes to invest federal recovery money to turn the building into a community kitchen and food distribution space. It could eventually be used for culinary arts programming, healthy food programs for school children, and a food bank with its own commercial kitchen.

As the pandemic ebbs, large municipalities like Revere are preparing for an influx of money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. For communities hard-hit by the pandemic, the money provides more than immediate relief, but the opportunity to address some of the societal ills uncovered during the public health crisis.

Unlike prior relief packages, the ARPA money carries a fair amount of flexibility in how it can be used beyond immediate public health needs. Municipalities can use it for infrastructure, to fill revenue holes, to cover COVID-related public health and economic impacts, or to give bonuses to essential workers. So far, few cities seem to have concrete plans for how to spend the money, which can be in the tens of millions of dollars. But many large municipalities say they are engaging in planning processes with local officials, businesses, and community residents to figure out the community’s needs. Municipal officials must decide how best to leverage the one-time funding to have long-lasting impact.

The central question for Arrigo, he said, is given the lessons learned over the last year-and-a-half, “How can we be thoughtful and methodical and invest the money for long-term recovery?”

Revere, a Boston-area city of 53,000 people with a large Latino population, provides one example of what the process can look like. As a high-density urban area with lots of people working in essential, in-person jobs, it was one of the hardest-hit cities by COVID-19. The city – with an operating budget of just over $200 million – anticipates getting $30 million in government aid.

Arrigo has been talking to city councilors, his cabinet, residents, and interest groups to develop a plan for long-term recovery that is consistent with the city’s master plan. He intends to put out a public survey asking residents to rank spending priorities. Arrigo said one important principle is to match the ARPA money with other state and federal grants and partner with community organizations “to get the biggest bang for our buck.”

The main areas where city officials want to spend – areas with needs highlighted during the pandemic – are on access to healthy food, childcare, stable housing, transportation, strong job centers, travel and tourism, and capital infrastructure. But Arrigo noted, “When you think about all those things, $30 million gets eaten up really quickly.”

One idea being considered is the creation of a health and wellness center with space for community programing. Another involves looking for ways to expand local nonprofits and social services, in areas like workforce training and housing sustainability.

Other municipal leaders said they are similarly engaging with their communities to determine how to spend the money. In Lynn, a Gateway City north of Boston with nearly 100,000 people, city government expects to get $75 million, in a city with a total budget of just under $400 million.

Lynn Mayor Tom McGee said the community will have a process for public input and will hire a consultant to help determine how to best use the money. The city will hire a contract employee for the duration of the funding to be the point person and make sure the city is complying with federal spending and reporting requirements.

McGee said city officials are seeking ways to impact the city today, but also improve life long-term. He said the pandemic spotlighted long-standing issues. For example, densely populated housing made it easier for COVID-19 to spread. Public health officials realized the need to better communicate with residents in multiple languages.

The city used some money from earlier COVID relief bills to upgrade ventilation in its school buildings, and McGee said that is the type of infrastructure project he hopes to do with ARPA money – something that provides an immediate improvement with long-lasting effects. For example, there might be opportunities to mitigate flooding, which is expected to worsen with climate change.

In New Bedford, a South Coast city of 95,000 that is getting nearly $65 million, Mayor Jon Mitchell said he is committed to using the money for one-time expenses, to avoid committing the city to future spending. “This aid package is a once a generational opportunity, and so we want to take full advantage of it,” Mitchell said. “But take advantage as an opportunity for one-time investment and refrain from taking on obligations that will last well beyond the point at which the money’s exhausted.”

Like other city mayors, Mitchell is looking for ways to pair ARPA funding with other resources. He hopes to get infrastructure projects shovel-ready in anticipation of a future federal infrastructure bill to fund them. He is trying to find out if local ARPA funds can be matched with state money for port improvements. He wants to know what private funding is available for public-private partnerships.

To keep the public engaged, New Bedford plans to launch a community survey and focus groups to help prioritize projects. It will publish public evaluations of each project that applies for funding. “We want to have a process that the public can have confidence in,” Mitchell said.

Not far from New Bedford, Fall River, a 90,000-person Gateway City in southeastern Massachusetts, is getting around $70 million.

There, Mayor Paul Coogan said city officials put together a panel of citizens, business owners, union leaders, and influential community members as an advisory board on how to spend the money. The city held a public meeting and will draft a survey to get wider input.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Coogan said he will be looking at water, sewer, and broadband projects, and premium pay for city employees. Fall River committed $4 million to replace budget revenue lost during the pandemic. It committed $1.5 million to rental subsidies for residents facing eviction. Other possible projects including money for new pumping stations and funding to boost mental health services.

Coogan noted that the ARPA money is “transformative,” but it came at a huge cost to individuals and businesses. “We lost over 400 residents, had 14,000 people sick at a minimum,” Coogan said. “That money is definitely going to make financial headway in many problems in Fall River, but it wasn’t like dropping out of heaven out of the blue. We paid a tremendous price for that money.”