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Cities and towns receive another installment of federal COVID relief

An aerial photo shows Montpelier in the fall.
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Montpelier is among the Vermont municipalities receiving a total of $200 million in COVID relief from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Vermont municipalities last week received their second installment from the last round of federal COVID relief.

They’re getting $200 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, which Congress passed last year to help the country recover from the pandemic.

Though the money comes with certain strings, local elected officials and voters have broad power to decide how to spend it.

To learn more about that process, Vermont Public's Mary Engisch spoke with Ted Brady, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: Can you start by explaining how these ARPA dollars are being distributed to towns and cities?

tedbrady-courtesy-20220901.jpg
Ted Brady

Ted Brady: Well, for the first time in about 40 years, the federal government is giving funding directly to cities, towns and villages across Vermont to help them recover from the pandemic. Every town in Vermont, and city and some villages are receiving about $300 per resident. And over the last 12 months, towns have received installments of money. And this last week, they received their second installment of this federal funding.

And where have we commonly seen this money used so far?

The federal government issued some rules that said what you can and can't use the money on. It really emphasized using the money to recover from the pandemic. That meant making improvements to their digital records, making improvements to their facilities to make them safer to operate in during a pandemic. But it also meant investing in the people that were impacted by the pandemic: housing, water and wastewater, broadband. All of these things we found incredibly necessary. And incredibly under-resourced pre-pandemic. This is a once-in-a-lifetime attempt by the federal government to make investments in things that could help us be more resilient in the future.

Talk more about that. It sounds like there are some particular trends and types of projects that are getting the most interest among elected officials?

The biggest thing we're seeing right now is the impacts of inflation are really hurting our town budgets and our city budgets. And so many towns and cities are actually using this funding to try to make up for the gap in their budgets. The other place we see a lot of people putting money is in water and wastewater infrastructure. It's clearly an acceptable use by the feds. And we have so much pipe, so many water lines that have not been invested in for 30 or 40 years. We still have wooden pipes out there in some places. We have lead pipes, you name it. And then the big one that we've all talked about is broadband, broadband, broadband. A lot of these towns are investing in the communication union districts that Vermont has created to help bring broadband to every Vermont home.

How much money still needs to be earmarked for specific projects like that? What will that process look like moving forward?

Nearly every city, town and village in Vermont that received money has had some conversation about how to use this funding. They've done it on the ballot; they've done it at town meeting; they've done it at select board meetings on Monday nights. Some have surveyed their residents and asked them how they want the money to be used.

Very little of this money has actually been put out the door. And that's very intentional. Towns are using a deliberate process because the money — unlike last time funding showed up like this — the money doesn't need to be spent immediately. We have until 2026 to actually spend the money.

So we don't know exactly how much has been used yet. Many towns have started using some of their money. Burlington deployed some of its money. Some small towns have deployed some of their money to help with things like first responder bonuses, essential worker bonuses — but very few have tapped even half of this money.

We keep hearing that this is a once-in-a-lifetime level of money. Can you put that in perspective for us?

Most towns actually have not received a lot of federal money in their past. If you look at Vermont's 247 cities and towns and another three dozen villages, most of them have only received things like [Federal Emergency Management Agency] money. And that's after an emergency. Most towns have to apply for federal money. They have to go through a grant process. They have to hire a grant writer. They have to use their regional planning commission.

The unique thing about this is the money was delivered to every single unit of government in Vermont, which meant every town had a chance to get a piece of this funding. And every town gets to decide how to spend that money on their own. That is such a unique thing that hasn't happened since revenue sharing in the late '70s and early '80s. And so this is the first time that there's been an equitable distribution to every town regardless of your capacity to ask for that money. So a town of 500 — though it received less money than a town of 10,000 — both of those towns got something and have some way to respond to the pandemic.

You mentioned equitable distribution of these funds. Are there any equity or social justice provisions that are tied to this money?

It was absolutely a priority of the federal government when they issued the guidance and how this money could be used. You could write a check for just about anything if you were working in areas that had a high number of people that were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. So when you talk about minority populations, when you talk about low-income populations. If you're building parks, if you're building housing, if you're doing just about anything in those communities, it was deemed to be eligible. The rules were a little stricter for most other uses of the money, but if you were targeting racial equity, if you were targeting social economic equity — you were given a real broad swath of what you can do with the funding.

Lastly, how will everyday Vermonters be invited into the process of really figuring out how to spend these remaining ARPA dollars?

Well, just like the budget process, select boards and city councils all across the state are having conversations about how to use this money at their select board meetings and council meetings. So engage; show up at the meeting; write to your select board members; write your city councilors. Ask them how they're spending the money. Go to the town website. Some towns have done really robust engagement processes, and they're looking for feedback. Others are having conversations in public as they run the government. You vote on your budget every March here in Vermont. And that's really the time when you get to make that final decision on how your town's going to spend its money.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontpublic.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered, Weekend Edition Saturday and Weekend Edition Sunday.
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