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How Vermont is trying to help small towns get their share of COVID-19 relief money

A group of state officials sit at a table listening to a local town administrator talk about applying for federal Covid relief money.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
Members of the Scott administration listen to a local official talk about the challenges of applying for federal American Rescue Plan Act money at a meeting in Bellows Falls Monday.

Vermont has more than a billion dollars in COVID-19 relief money to give out.

And state officials have been traveling into each county to make sure that some of the smaller towns, and neediest communities, get their fair share.

“Really the goal is to ensure that if we can get money into your region, that we get money into your region,” Agency of Commerce and Community Development Secretary Lindsay Kurrle told a crowd of about 40 people at a meeting in Bellows Falls this week.

Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in 2021, and Deputy Administration Secretary Doug Farnham said when the state looked at how things were going this past summer it became clear that there were winners, and losers, when it came to where the money was going.

“We had to prepare an annual report last summer,” Farnham told the crowd. “And looking at that annual report we could see that the distribution of those funds appeared to be concentrated in certain areas of the state. And did not appear to be hitting every section of the state.”

More from Vermont Public: With ARPA Money Coming In, Vermont Towns Make Plans To Spend Millions

The state ranked the counties on most need, based on things like decline in workforce and property values.

And some of the neediest counties, like Essex and Bennington, had the fewest ARPA projects, while Chittenden, Franklin and Washington counties were making the most use of the federal dollars.

Meetings like this are happening in every county, and Farnham said now is the time for smaller towns to figure out what projects they want to invest in and start getting up to speed on the federal application process.

“We really need to try to make sure everyone in Vermont has an equal shot at accessing these funds,” he said. “It is really an opportunity to get things done that normally we would not have the resources to do in our smaller state.”

“We’re a small town of less than 2,000. And our ability to take advantage of this funding is really, really limited."
Shane O'Keefe, Londonderry town administrator

State officials from the Scott administration talked about water and waste water projects, housing, farming and forestry, flood mitigation and even libraries.

State Librarian Cathy Delneo said there are about $26 million to invest in the state’s public libraries.

“If your library has holes in the roof, and you’re a small, rural, economically depressed community; this would be money to apply for,” Delneo said.

For a lot of towns, the big challenge is having the staff to identify projects and then work through the complex federal applications.

Towns like Marlboro and Brookline, which both had representatives at the meeting, don’t have a planning department, or even a full-time town manager to make sure they get their fair share of the federal money.

Londonderry Town Administrator Shane O’Keefe said he came out to the meeting in Bellows Falls to find out what kind of help his town could get.

“We’re a small town of less than 2,000,” O’Keefe said. “And our ability to take advantage of this funding is really, really limited. And it’s really tough for a small town that really has no staff, other than a town administrator.”

Federal rules say the projects have to be identified before the end of 2024, and the Scott administration wants $3 million to hire consultants who can work directly with the towns.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Corrected: February 9, 2023 at 2:02 PM EST
This post has been updated with the correct spelling for Cathy Delneo.
Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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