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Roads, Housing, Fire Station on Table for Williamstown's ARPA Funds
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:20AM / Wednesday, January 11, 2023
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday began discussing how to use nearly $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds that are available to the town.
 
There is no shortage of possibilities.
 
The town manager argued for a strategy that would use a portion of the federal funds to offset overruns on a state construction project and keep town finances stable. The fire district is asking for a town contribution to support its new building project. And a Select Board member pitched using the ARPA money to support other town priorities, like affordable housing and addressing food insecurity issues to benefit low- and moderate-income residents.
 
To date, the town has spent nearly $264,000 from a $2,222,000 allotment on items ranging from about $90,000 to pay for equipment to facilitate hybrid meetings at Town Hall to $384 on personal protective equipment and other COVID-19-related supplies.
 
According to a memo from Town Manager Robert Menicocci, the remainder must be obligated by the end of calendar year 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.
 
And he has some ideas on targets for that money, including application toward a $1.3 million bill for the bicycle/pedestrian trail that runs from Syndicate Road to the Spruces Park.
 
"I think the biggest change that has surfaced since we last talked about this and what through the various items the community had been looking at for funding requests was the news around the cost overrun on our bike and pedestrian trail," Menicocci said at Monday's meeting. "What I really think is important about the consideration of the ARPA funds is looking at the fiscal situation of the town in its totality.
 
"The cost overrun, that's in the ballpark of about $1.3 million. It has a significant impact on our fiscal situation."
 
Although, strictly speaking, the town has adequate Chapter 90 funds available to fill the hole in the bike trail budget, such an expenditure would prevent the town from addressing other infrastructure projects.
 
Menicocci told the Select Board that the ARPA funds could help the town with other challenges as it heads into fiscal year 2024, which begins on July 1.
 
"Somehow, we need to make our Chapter 90 funds whole," Menicocci said. "Whether we do that through painful budget exercises of pulling back on the budget and replenishing that by carving out parts of our budget is one option. But I think the pain of that is going to be pretty severe in the sense that we know we have significant inflation plus a hefty obligation with our collective bargaining agreements. We talk about a 2.5 percent threshold of what we want to hold our budget to. And the largest piece of our budget obligation is around our salaries coming in at 3 percent right off the bat.
 
"The numbers are going to be hard to balance out. We have to think about how that's going to happen."
 
Select Board member Randy Fippinger countered that the ARPA funds present a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the town to "think big" about ways to address town priorities and that regular budget items should be funded through regular mechanisms, like taxation.
 
"When we had our finance conversations last year, it seemed like we were nowhere near our 2.5 percent threshold," Fippinger said. "That doesn't seem to be a concern based on some of the past conversations I've heard.
 
"I understand that these [items on Menicocci's list] are important town priorities, and I think that the town should vote or not vote on spending their money for these sorts of things."
 
As for the ARPA funds, Fippinger pointed to an example from South County, referencing a news release from the town of Great Barrington, which devoted a large share of its ARPA revenue to affordable housing projects and support for social programs like the Community Health Programs, the People's Pantry and Berkshire Bounty.
 
"I think we should be spending ARPA funds on some important priorities," Fippinger said. "And while I know it's not the final report, the Comprehensive Plan on the Phase 1 outreach put out a small report last week, and under housing, 70 percent of the respondents said that the housing supply is an immediate issue and it's inadequate.
 
"This is an immediate problem, and I see that towns like Great Barrington are saying: 'This is urgent. Let's put some real money toward this.' And I don't see that we're putting real money toward a problem we've all identified over and over again as an important issue. What I'd propose is we completely rethink how we spend this money and put some real chunks of money toward some town priorities."
 
Andy Hogeland, who holds the Select Board's seat on the board of the town's Affordable Housing Trust, said he was interested in Fippinger's thinking on the issue, but he has concerns about the timing of the using ARPA funds when there are no new big affordable housing projects currently in the pipeline.
 
"These funds have to be spent by the end of next year," Hogeland said. "I don't think we're in a position to have a big housing project by the end of next year, and this would only be a small fraction of it."
 
"If you want to give all this money to the Affordable Housing Trust, I'm with you."
 
Later, Fippinger picked up on a couple of references by Select Board Chair Hugh Daley to how using Menicocci's strategy could potentially save money for local property taxpayers. That opened the door to a philosophical argument.
 
"Does this, in any way, help renters, who are also, statistically, the lower-income range in this town?" Fippinger asked Daley. "Because it's not necessarily going to be passed along to them because landlords don't have to pass it along. It seems like the landowners and the people with most affluence in town, the landowner, get the most benefit of this money."
 
Daley argued, not for the first time in a Select Board meeting, that renters do, in fact, pay property taxes, indirectly, insofar as they are reflected in their rents.
 
He also noted that the town in recent years has made significant financial commitments to build affordable housing at 330 Cole Ave. and in the Cable Mills housing complex on Water Street.
 
"It may be that Great Barrington is behind us in those efforts and needs to catch up and we're further along," Daley said.
 
"So while it still may be that there are things that could be done, I'm not going to fall into the camp that says, 'We're not doing enough.' I feel like we've actually put a ton of money into these projects."
 
The Select Board had no plans to take any votes on Monday on how to use the ARPA funds. The meeting was intended to be the start of a conversation that would need to conclude fairly quickly if any of the allocations are to impact the budget that the Finance Committee will review this winter.
 
Daley closed the initial round of ARPA talks Monday by inviting Fippinger to draft his own recommendations for how the money could be spent in time for the Jan. 23 Select Board meeting.
 
He then turned to the representatives from the Williamstown Fire District's Building Committee, who attended the meeting to ask for a town contribution toward their Main Street project, which has an estimated price tag of just less than $25 million.
 
"If you're talking about projects that are in the pipeline and urgent, getting our firefighters out of a building that doesn't meet safety standards, hamstrings them operationally and bleeds energy and replacing it with a modern station that is safe, operationally sound and net-zero carbon, it's that," James Kolesar said of the new fire station project.
 
Donald Dubendorf told the Select Board that any town funds, including ARPA allocations, that could go toward the Fire District project would be leveraged – both by reducing the amount that ultimately needs to be borrowed and by signaling "other sources of funding" that the town recognizes the need for a new station.
 
"If we don't have the support of this body, the Select Board, other sources of funding are going to read something negative into that," Dubendorf said. "Other sources of contribution to this are going to see this and say, 'Well, if it wasn't significant enough for the Select Board to support, we're not going to.' I'm talking about state grants. I'm talking about contributions, etc."
 
Hogeland told Dubendorf that he does not think there is anyone in town who does not recognize the need to replace the aging, cramped fire station on Water Street. But Hogeland said he has concerns about the size and budget for the proposed new station, which will be put before voters in a special Fire District meeting on Feb. 28.
 
Dubendorf said he was happy to have a discussion with anyone who questions the size of the project the district is proposing but did not think it was productive to conflate that question with the question of whether Town Hall should contribute financially; the fire district is a separate taxing authority apart from town government.
 
"If you're saying, 'We don't like the size of this building or we don't like the cost, so we're not going to contribute to it,' to me that seems counterproductive and, frankly, not very thoughtful," Dubendorf said. "At the end of the day, we're not serving our constituents well if we don't address this issue. If we need to have more conversations about the size or the cost, let's have those conversations. But I don't confuse that conversation with this conversation about the need for the Select Board to take seriously our request to fund it at whatever cost it is.
 
"My hope is we deliver it for less than the budget, and we'll pursue that with vigor."
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