With federal aid, small towns keep it simple
Some capping landfills, others boosting internet, tiling floors
This is the first in a three-part series on how municipalities are spending ARPA money.
WHEN MICHELE GIARUSSO, the municipal assistant in the small town of Leyden, read the rules governing the distribution of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, her response was: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Officials in Leyden, a Franklin County town that borders Vermont, population 715, have been working for years to get residents connected to broadband internet. In 2016, residents voted to spend $1.07 million on broadband, using a mix of federal, state, and taxpayer dollars, and the final resident was hooked up in March of 2021. The town paid its last construction bill in February.
The problem is that the federal ARPA funding – of which Leyden is eligible for $213,000 – is for broadband construction starting in March 2021.
While Gov. Charlie Baker and state lawmakers hash out how to spend more than $5 billion in federal funding for state government from the American Rescue Plan Act, and lawmakers and advocates press for transformational change, similar planning processes are going on in every municipality statewide. Town administrators are poring over rules and figuring out what exactly they are eligible for. For many of the smallest towns, there is little talk of systemic change. Rather, the money is a vital resource to complete what is often a single project, something that would otherwise strain town and taxpayer budgets.
Hinsdale town administrator Bob Graves said when it comes to things like repairing roads or capping a landfill, “These projects are highly expensive for a small town to cover.”
Graves said Hinsdale (population 1,911) hopes to use $120,000 in ARPA money to cap an old landfill at the town transfer station that the Department of Environmental Protection says needs to be capped for environmental reasons. The plan had been to raise taxpayer funds through a warrant at town meeting, but the project got pushed off by a year during the pandemic, and now other needs have come up that require taxpayer money.
“It’s another one of those expenses that comes up that the town has to figure out how to do,” Graves said. “We’re hoping we can just use this [ARPA money] and make this work and get this off our plate.”
The American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law by President Biden in March, will provide $3.4 billion in direct aid to local governments in Massachusetts. Every community will get some aid, generally based on its population. Large metropolitan cities will get more money through a different formula, and money will also be distributed through county governments.
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said for smaller towns, the distribution generally comes out to $105 per person in direct municipal aid, plus another $194 per person in aid that flows through the counties. The money is a grant, so it does not have to be voted on at town meeting but can be spent by the select board.
Communities have until 2024 to allocate the money and 2026 to spend it. There is a broad range of allowable uses: to respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency or its economic impacts; to provide premium pay to essential workers; to make up for revenue lost due to COVID-19; and to invest in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.
In Monroe, a tiny town along the Vermont border, officials hope to use the money – around $34,000 excluding county money, according to a state spreadsheet – to complete a last-mile broadband project and connect all residents to high-speed internet.
In the Franklin County town of Gill (population 1,465), town administrator Ray Purington said the priority for the $438,000 in government aid will be replacing an asbestos tile floor at the elementary school. Changes in building use and air quality during the pandemic accelerated the failure of the glue, so asbestos tiles are coming off, creating a health problem. “It’s a project that we would have had to fund, no doubt – you don’t mess around with health and safety of the schoolchildren – but it’s potentially a $300,000 project that taxpayers won’t be bearing the full cost of,” Purington said.
In Dighton, a Bristol County community near Taunton with a population of nearly 8,000, the town will get around $2.3 million from the federal government – an amount equivalent to just under 10 percent of its annual budget. Town administrator Michael Mullen said the town would like to use the money to address long-standing problems with an inadequate water supply. He is also working with the finance committee and others to explore public health and safety uses – things like upgrading communications equipment for first responders or buying new firefighter breathing apparatus.
“If we can really look at those investments that have long been critical in the town, using funding to achieve and address those goals, that’s very appealing,” Mullen said.
Officials in several towns said they still had not decided how to use the money. Michael Lorenco, town administrator in Mattapoisett, said because the money lasts for several years, town officials are in no hurry to spend it. “There’s no rush to burn through that money until we have solid plan put together, and we haven’t had time to develop that yet,” Lorenco said. Some possibilities he’s looking at are replacing revenue lost during COVID when the town stopped selling beach permits to nonresidents; buying membership to an assessing software tool that can take satellite pictures of homes assessors could not visit during the pandemic; and making sure the schools have enough money.Town officials must still contend with the usual challenges of building local projects. Ashby officials planned to use their roughly $900,000 in ARPA money to build a septic system and well for a new public safety building. But the town got no bids on the project.
“Now we’re back to ground zero,” said town administrator Bob Hanson.