Source: Rob Ryser, Danbury News-Times
Danbury News-Times, May 3, 2021
By Rob Ryser
Within one week, the federal Treasury Department is expected to release its rules for how Danbury and surrounding towns may spend the $2.5 billion in COVID relief money coming to Connecticut local governments - including $690 million no one was expected to get.
Shortly after that, the first batch of money from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act will arrive in Danbury and other Connecticut cities - with the first round of money for towns to arrive by the end of June.
While the unexpected relief money may represent the first good news Danbury and surrounding towns have had since the coronavirus crisis turned Connecticut upside down 13 months ago, it may also present challenges for local leaders who must decide how to spend it.
“This is completely unprecedented for our state and our local governments in terms of the amount of federal money that is coming in,” said Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. “With all this money coming in, a lot of our members don’t have the resources they need to understand how to best allocate this type of funding.”
To fill the void, DeLong’s association has commissioned a 13-member advisory group of academics, advocates, business leaders and elected officials to guide Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns through the unprecedented aid cycle that begins within weeks.
The idea is help cities like Danbury and surrounding towns identify projects to invest it, find ways to “leverage the funding to generate future revenue” and help leaders document their spending according to Treasury Department requirements.
Although Connecticut leaders are waiting with the rest of the country on the Treasury’s final rules for the money, it’s understood here that the aid is meant to be spent on repairing revenue losses, paying for unbudgeted COVID expenses and sparking economic development.
“The idea is to invest in the community, and we already have a lot of that stuff in our capital plan,” said Dan Rosenthal, the First Selectman in Newtown, which is slated to receive $10 million. “I don’t think we have to dream things up; this should dovetail into the process we already have.”
The federal government doesn’t want the COVID relief money to be spent on short-term political gains, such as cutting taxes or supplementing pension fund.
“Municipalities shouldn’t be base-building their budgets or starting new programming that has to be funded into perpetuity,” DeLong said. “The focus should be on self-supporting programs or projects that have a return on investment, such as capital projects that spur economic growth.”
Nor does the federal government want the state to control all the money, as Washington did in previous rounds of coronavirus relief in 2020.
For Hartford’s part, the state is beginning the process of developing its own plan for its portion of the $6.3 billion coming to Connecticut from the American Rescue Plan.
Last week, Gov. Ned Lamont submitted a plan to the state Legislature that includes spending on:
The public health response to COVID
Aid to nonprofits and traditionally underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by the pandemic
Making Connecticut more affordable for child care, college and health care
Economic investment and job training
While it was never a given that local government was going to receive money as the American Rescue Plan Act was being debated in Congress earlier this year, it was truly a coup when Connecticut secured American Rescue Plan money earmarked for county-level government, DeLong said.
Connecticut doesn’t have county-level government, so in the past the state has simply lost out on that grant money from Washington.
DeLong is not shy about giving CCM credit for bringing an extra $690 million to Connecticut towns and cities.
“It was a huge win and we led the charge on it,” he said. “It brought a second pot of money to our towns and cities that otherwise wouldn’t have materialized because we don’t have a county structure.”
The extra money brings the total expected award in municipal and school aid to $8 million in New Fairfield, $10 million in Bethel, $19 million in New Milford, and $71 million in Danbury.
Danbury Mayor Joe Cavo said it was too soon to be more specific about the city’s plans for the money, but indicated he would like to see some of the money spent on one-time costs associated with the city’s plan to build a $99 million career academy for upper grades in a west side office complex.
Other municipal leaders are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“The municipalities are very appreciative and excited about the (American Rescue Plan money) but the devil is always in the details,” said Francis Pickering, executive director of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, a coalition of 18 cities and towns in southwest Connecticut. “Most are taking a conservative approach and waiting to see what the guidance is.”
Part of the CCM advisory group’s charge is to convert the fiscal caution among municipal leaders about the American Rescue Plan money into confidence that local government can make impactful investments, especially if leaders work together.
“This is a historic opportunity for Connecticut to get substantial funding,” DeLong said. “It is a tremendous opportunity for our communities.”