ELLSWORTH — A City Council discussion Dec. 20 on the $800,000 received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) highlighted the different priorities of individual councilors, who agreed by consensus to develop a framework for decisions on how to spend the federal funds.
“How are we going to decide, as a group, to spend that money over time?” Councilor Casey Hanson posed, asking her fellow councilors to set goals or a vision for the funds. “Can we agree on some values or goals?”
ARPA funds, intended to offset economic and other pandemic effects, may only be spent on public health, negative economic impacts, premium pay for essential workers, to replace lost public sector revenue and on water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
The city has received just under $450,000 already, with the remainder to come next year, and has until 2024 to commit the funds and until 2025 to spend them.
The discussion preceded two agenda items from Councilor Steven O’Halloran, who was elected this past November.
O’Halloran first asked that all city employees receive $1,000 hazard pay as essential workers from ARPA funds. Councilors in November approved $1,000 hazard pay for city first responders to be matched by $2,000 from county ARPA funds.
O’Halloran held his request was a question of fairness. However, councilors discussed that city hall employees worked from home or away from other people much of the pre-vaccination pandemic period — city hall was closed to the public for a time — while first responders were directly on the front lines, often without personal protective equipment.
The motion failed 2-4, with O’Halloran and Councilor Michelle Kaplan in favor. (Councilor Gene Lyons was absent because of illness.) Department heads will each make their case for hazard pay for their employees in January or February.
O’Halloran’s next request was to divide the ARPA funds equally among all city taxpayers.
“I believe it would be honorable to return this windfall to the people who support this city,” O’Halloran said.
Each citizen would receive very little, City Manager Glenn Moshier pointed out. And, Councilor Marc Blanchette noted, it’s goes against the ARPA regulations.
“It all sounds warm and fuzzy, but we’re not allowed to do it,” Blanchette said.
Hanson pointed to mental health, which “has taken a huge hit because of the pandemic,” childcare and the worker shortage as areas deserving of ARPA funds.
“I’m not advocating for spending it all now,” she said, later adding, “I want to use it in a way that helps the community the most.”
Councilor Robert Miller favored helping small businesses and other ways to bring more revenue to the city. “If we find a way to increase revenue, that’s going to help taxpayers,” he said.
Kaplan said, “It’s better to keep the money in our pocket till we absolute need it.” She also pointed to city projects, especially road work, that have been left unfunded.
Council Chairman Dale Hamilton advised waiting for the overall budget process later this year. “I think we have to do the hard work that goes beyond this one table,” he said.