|Williamstown Select Board Allocates Part of Town's ARPA Funds|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
05:15PM / Tuesday, January 31, 2023
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday agreed on how to spend $565,000 of nearly $2 million in available American Rescue Plan Act funds.
How much of the balance goes to support the construction of a new fire station is the million-dollar question.
Or, depending on your point of view, the $400,000 question.
The four members of the board in attendance at Monday's meeting held off on deciding how to allocate the balance of the town's ARPA funds — nearly $1.4 million.
The two biggest ticket items on the "menu" of options before the board on Monday remained unaddressed at the end of the panel's deliberations: a grant to the Fire District to support its efforts to build a new station on Main Street and support for "general infrastructure" projects in town, like redoing Church Street and South Street.
Chair Hugh Daley presented the options to his colleagues with two different scenarios: giving $1 million to the Fire District and the balance to "town" projects, like roads, and the reverse, dedicating $1 million to town infrastructure and awarding the rest in a grant to the Fire District, a separate taxing entity apart from town government.
After two hours of discussion and a second presentation by Fire District representatives, the Select Board did not settle on whether it wanted to dedicate any of the ARPA funds to the new station, let alone how much.
It could agree on ARPA allocations to support 10 different projects: an allowance to the town's Affordable Housing Trust ($220,000); bonus pay to town employees who worked through the COVID-19 pandemic ($80,000); police equipment, including matching funds for a state grant to pay for body cams ($50,000), equipment upgrades at Willinet, the town's community access television station ($50,000); design work for a water line replacement in the White Oaks area ($35,000); design work for permanent erosion control measures on the Hoosic River near North Street ($30,000); infrastructure needs at the Harper Center ($30,000); electronic voting equipment, or clickers, for use at town meeting ($25,000); funds to settle a longstanding dispute between the town and the state's unemployment department ($25,000); and the migration of the town's computer system to Microsoft 365 ($20,000).
Of those, one allocation was understood by the Select Board to be "provisional." The idea of an electronic voting option at town meeting, a secret ballot for every vote, essentially, has been bandied about by town officials throughout the last year. But the board agreed in principle on Thursday to asking this May's town meeting whether "their bosses" agree with the idea.
Another of the allocations voted last night came directly from a suggestion by Select Board member Randy Fippinger, who again Monday argued that the federal ARPA funds give the town a once-in-a-generation opportunity to think address needs that directly impact residents and not just regular town government expenses, like equipment for the Police Department and roadwork.
He also suggested two other potential projects, a pilot "Farm to Cafeteria" program for Mount Greylock Regional School ($70,000) and funds for the Affordable Housing Trust dedicated to a land purchase ($390,000).
Fippinger characterized the Harper Center, home of the town's Council on Aging, as "antiquated."
"They need furniture that is appropriate for seniors of many different body types," Fippinger said. "They need computers. As a town, we have not been paying attention to our seniors in any serious ways.
"I don't know why feeding our students properly or taking care of seniors are less of a priority than lockboxes for the Police Department. I think we should be putting these bigger picture items first, ahead of day-to-day items."
His colleagues agreed that the Harper Center was a needed investment and put that expense into their motion to allocate more than a quarter of the ARPA funds.
On the other hand, Andy Hogeland, who currently chairs the Affordable Housing Trust, noted that he was not sure the trust would be able to spend the $390,000 within the time frame required by ARPA and pointed out that the trustees recently issued a request for proposals for buildable lots in town but had no good responses. And Hogeland raised a concern about dedicating town funds for a program at Mount Greylock that could be funded by one of the regional school district's member towns without corresponding support from the other member town.
As for the remaining "big ticket" items on the board's menu of choices, three people spoke from the floor of Monday's meeting to argue in favor of granting ARPA money to the fire station.
Former Select Board member Jeff Thomas, who chaired a community advisory committee for the Fire District after leaving the elected position, made the case for cost savings to the taxpayer, arguing that an ARPA grant to reduce the principal needed to borrow for the project will pay off down the road.
Citing data from the district's bonding agent, Thomas told the Select Board that, assuming a 4.5 percent interest rate (in line with historical rates) and a $22.5 million project, the station would cost taxpayers, in principal and interest $35.6 million over the life of the bond.
Last week's announcement of a $5 million gift from Williams College lowers that debt service to $27.7 million, saving both the $5 million in principal and $2.9 million in interest, the bond agent's analysis showed. Another $1 million from the town's ARPA funds, as the Fire District is requesting, would save an additional $600,000 in interest and lower the debt service cost to $26.1 million.
Looked at another way, every dollar spent at the start of the project to reduce the debt incurred is worth $1.58, according to the figures presented on Monday night.
Daley said that strategy aligned with the way he has thought about using ARPA funds from Day 1: as money the town could leverage to generate bigger cost savings.
The money to match state grants for police equipment fit that philosophy, as does the design work for projects on the White Oaks water line and Hoosic River erosion – making them "shovel ready" and eligible for other grants.
Hogeland, who has in the past raised concerns about spending town funds for any needs of a different municipal entity, like the Fire District, said the analysis indicating long-term savings to town taxpayers gave him pause.
"But tonight I'm not in favor of deciding yes or no on the Fire District," Hogeland said.
Fippinger also said he was not ready to vote on an allocation for the fire station, but for a different reason. He said he was uncomfortable making a final decision on allocating nearly $1.4 million in ARPA funds without a full Select Board present and suggested the body should wait until Jane Patton was with the group at another meeting.
"I'm uncomfortable voting on things that are so important to the town without her input," Fippinger said.
Some of the town's infrastructure projects, like the repaving of South Street, are shovel ready. In fact, that project was on the schedule to be done already before the pandemic hit in March 2020. Normally, they would be funded from Chapter 90 funds, but the town anticipates needing to spend Chapter 90 money to address overages in the bicycle/pedestrian path
project that one day is hoped to link to the Ashuwilticook Trail.
The Select Board's next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 13, two weeks before a Feb. 28, 7 p.m. special Fire District meeting where voters will decide whether to authorize up to $22.5 million to build the new station. On Thursday, the district's Prudential Committee plans to approve the warrant for the Feb. 28 meeting specifying the sum of $22.5 million.
In other business on Monday, the Select Board approved a calendar for town election and town meeting this spring. Some significant dates include: Feb.6, when nomination papers will be available (at least 31 signatures required to get on the ballot); March 21, when completed nomination papers must be returned; April 10, when the Select Board will finalize the warrant for town meeting; town election on May 9 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and town meeting on May 16 at 6 p.m.
Town Manager Robert Menicocci said the town does not plan to hold early in-person voting at Town Hall given the low numbers of voters who have used that option in the past (fewer than 6 percent of ballots cast last November), but mail-in ballots (nearly 40 percent cast) will be available. The deadline to register to vote in the May election is Wednesday, April 28, at 5 p.m.