Newport This Week

Middletown to Identify Uses for Fed COVID Funds

The Middletown Planning Board met on May 12 to discuss if certain projects meet the criteria for federal American Rescue Plan Act funding.

The town is slated to receive $4.75 million in ARPA funding, part of the rescue package approved by Congress last year. Under the legislation, municipalities must dedicate the funds by Dec. 31, 2024 and spend themby Dec. 31, 2026. Local authorities have some leeway in terms of what types of initiatives they choose to fund, as long as they relate to social, economic and health impacts wrought by the coronavirus.

“Generally speaking, this funding is supposed to be used to respond to the pandemic,” said town planner Ron Wolanski.

To date, the only decision regarding the anticipated funds has been an approval by the Town Council to funnel $300,000 toward the School Department’s “Beyond the Bell” after-school program. How the town chooses to use the remainder has yet to be decided, said Matt Sheley, Middletown public affairs officer.

“To date, there’s been significant discussion about potentially using some of the ARPA funding (about $2 million) to cover the recent overspending by the School Department. but that’s not set in stone,” he said. “Ultimately, the goal of the town is to use the ARPA money to help and assist as many people in the community as reasonably possible.”

The Planning Board is acting in an advisory capacity and has been charged with issuing a recommendation to the Town Council, who will have final say in how the onetime funds are allocated.

Board Chair Paul Croce opened the meeting by emphasizing that the scope of the May 12 conversation should not include members’ opinions on the merits of the projects under consideration, and would be limited to whether they are in line with the comprehensive community plan.

“[But] consistency with the plan does not mean it’s not a worthy project,” he noted.

Wolanski provided a list of the more than 100 project funding requests received by the Finance Department in recent months from residents, business owners, and nonprofit organizations through a submission box on the town’s website. There were also requests submitted by elected officials from the Town Council and School Committee, as well as from members of volunteer subcommittees and municipal departments.

These range from suggestions to issue stipends to frontline workers to shoring up mental health services, expanding broadband internet service and increasing affordable housing. Many suggestions were for infrastructure improvements, while others used the form to make political statements expressing opposition to the federal act.

Wolanski reminded the board that their purview was to help the council determine which types of requests fit the comprehensive plan, though their advisory opinion would not bind the council to any final decision.

“[Requests not outlined in the comprehensive plan] doesn’t mean they are good or bad,” he said. “It just means that in terms of reviewing the consistency . . . there is really nothing in it that addresses that particular topic.”

An April 22 memo to the board said “funding can be used on a wide range of projects related to addressing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among those is work that benefits public health, reverses negative economic impacts, helps those disproportionally impacted by COVID-19, improves infrastructure, and replaces lost revenues.”

In a follow-up conversation, Wolanski said that most of the requests received by the town appeared to be “in line” with the types of initiatives and special projects that the federal money is meant to be used for.

Board member Art Weber asked, for example, if directing funds to nonprofit organizations, which is not spelled out in the comprehensive plan, could be deemed not applicable to the comprehensive plan but still eligible toreceive funds by the council.

“They could certainly still choose to fund it if they wish to,” said Wolanski.

Sheley said the council may take up discussion of the next steps regarding the ARPA funds on May 16, but that nothing has been formally placed on the agenda.

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