MERIDEN — The steering committee tasked with recommending to the City Council how most of Meriden’s $36.3 million share of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds should be used convened its first organizational meeting this week.
During the meeting, held in a hybrid in-person and remote format Monday night, the committee selected its leaders: city councilors Yvette Cortez and Michael Carabetta as chairperson and vice chairperson, respectively.
The following night, the City Council’s finance committee met remotely, voting 3-to-2 to recommend the council as a whole approve spending $235,084 of ARP funds toward the purchase of information technology equipment and services that officials said would greatly improve the city’s ability to conduct remote meetings.
Some members of the public have criticized that proposal, saying it should be submitted to the ARP Steering Committee before going to the council, like other proposals will be.
City Manager Timothy Coon acknowledged that criticism Tuesday night. He told finance committee members the primary reason it had gone directly to the finance committee and the council, and not before the steering committee, is because of time.
Coon cited the ongoing ramp up of the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus, which has grown dramatically around the state and in Meriden. He said shoring up the city’s ability “to conduct meetings more robustly, on a wider basis, with greater capabilities was deemed to be important enough to get into place as soon as possible.” Coon said it is an allowed expense under federal rules that outline ARP fund requirements.
The City Council received the proposal before the American Rescue Plan Steering Committee held its first meeting. Coon said the time frame to receive the steering committee’s recommendation was not known.
The system itself would take six to eight weeks to install, Coon said. Had it gone through the steering committee, the system likely would not be installed until December or January. Coon explained by going directly to the council the system could be installed and available for use by late October.
The system would enable meetings to be simultaneously cast from the City Council chambers, which Coon described as being “not an entirely efficient” meeting space, into an overflow conference room on the first floor of City Hall. Those attending meetings in the overflow room would be able to provide public comment like they would if they were in the council chambers.
The system has other capabilities that Coon said would help “bring our meetings into the 21st century.” One capability is real time translation for non-English speakers. It can also automatically track speakers, pointing meeting cameras toward them.
City Councilor Nicole Tomassetti, the finance committee’s vice chairperson, said she supports the proposal.
“I think that the technology upgrades are needed,” Tomassetti said. “I don’t think we know how next year is going to look. I think this is an appropriate use of funds — making sure our meetings are accessible.”
Carabetta disagreed, describing the system as not urgently needed.
“We are getting by with the way we are right now,” Carabetta said. “While it’s great, the product’s great, there’s no reason we can’t wait four weeks.”
Carabetta added it sends the wrong message to city taxpayers. “I really urge it to go through the proper channels,” he said. “For everybody that’s going to be applying for ARP money we should hold ourselves to the same standard.”Determining funding
Those standards were discussed in detail during the steering committee’s organizational meeting. Proposed expenditures must fall within one of four categories in order to be approved: addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, including efforts to mitigate its spread and curtail its adverse economic impact; lost government revenue; investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure; and premium pay for essential workers in both the public and private sectors.
Coon said funds must be obligated by Dec. 31, 2024 and expended within two years after that. Funds can be held in interest bearing accounts until they’re spent, Coon explained.
Coon further outlined federal guidelines for assessing which proposals receive funding. Those guidelines include assessing whether proposals address sectors or populations disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
That topic would resurface during the steering committee’s discussions about its charge and process for determining which proposals it recommends for funding.
Cortez favored a scoring process that gives extra weight for proposals that address issues like racial disparities and the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on different populations. Cortez noted that language surfaces regularly in federal guidelines around funding.
Mayor Kevin Scarpati, another member of the steering committee, said he was concerned that too much red tape in the proposal submission process could deter potential applicants.
“I think we need to make it as easy to submit proposals as possible,” Scarpati said.
Scarpati suggested a streamlined process, including an online application.
The mayor envisioned the role of the steering committee as being not just a group that vets funding applications.
The committee, he said, “should be going out into the community and being advocates for grant dollars.” Adverse impact
Later on in the meeting, the committee discussed the rubric it would use to score applications, ultimately voting to approve language that would give weight to those proposals that seek to address the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on different populations.
Scarpati supported that language. At the same time, he stated he wanted as many people, businesses and organizations to apply for funding as possible.
“So I encourage anyone and everyone, once this is made public, to fill out an application,” he said. That includes nonprofits, businesses and any other individuals or groups who have “been adversely impacted over the past year and a half. I don’t want to give someone a reason not to submit.”
Cortez said the purpose of putting the language around disproportionate impact was to help set priorities.
“And I think it needs to be highlighted significantly in the scoring section,” Cortez said. It’s important to consider how the proposals impact those who have been most affected by the pandemic. It’s not something that should be overlooked, she said.
“This is COVID money,” she said. “It’s geared toward helping those who were most impacted. And what we know, with factual data to support it, is that COVID impacted people differently by race, age and socioeconomic status.”