WALLINGFORD — With a week to go before the deadline for small businesses and nonprofits to submit applications for American Rescue Plan Act funding, the mayor and the Town Council continue to disagree with how the process of evaluating those applications should proceed and how the money should be spent.
The federal government allocated $13.5 million to the town to distribute as it sees fit to help make up for the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some municipalities have spent their allocations solely on public projects, Wallingford decided to allocate $5 million to small businesses and the nonprofits who were impacted.
The deadline for those groups to apply for the money is Dec. 9, after which it was thought the ARPA Selection Committee would begin to review them in order to make recommendations to the mayor and the Town Council. But many council members objected to that moving forward before the town had itself submitted a list of recommended municipal projects. To that end, the council approved a motion requiring that list be submitted before the committee can begin its review, but not before words were exchanged between Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. and some council members.
“The idea would be that there is a list of projects that would be in the hopper and the committee would rank them with the rubric in the same way they are going to do with the other projects to determine what they see as the most ARPA-related according to the criteria,” Councilor Joseph Marrone said. “As I drive around town, there are tons of projects that could be done in all kinds of areas. You even said yourself that there are maintenance items that could be done if the funding were there. So my thought was we have a basic list of what all these projects are and we can move forward from that.”
Dickinson said that would be impossible to do before the deadline and doesn't agree that the committee needs to see the proposed town projects before deciding on funding for nonprofits and small businesses.
“I am very uneasy with providing all of this to the committee, and then anyone who doesn’t want to spend money where it certainly is needed with small business and nonprofits just shortchanges that side of it and says, ‘Well the government should get this.’ That’s my concern,” Dickinson said. “They should get a fair shot at the money based upon their needs.”
The council previously approved a motion forming the committee that allocated $2.5 million for small businesses and $2.5 million for nonprofits. Dickinson said that too is unfair to cap the amounts before seeing what the need is.
“I think it is unfair to those who are applying to say if you happen to exceed $2.5 million, you can forget it because that’s all that’s going to be spent on the needs of small business. Same thing for nonprofits,” Dickinson said. “If the combined need exceeds $2.5 million, you can forget it because initially the committee will make a recommendation that is based on that $2.5 million if you stick with that position taken before we have any evidence of what the need is.”
“When you say you can forget it, those are your words, those aren’t the council’s words,” Marrone said. “You’re trying to create an argument around something that the council hasn’t voted on. The balance is yet unallocated.”
Councilor Christina Tatta made a motion to require the committee to wait until the town’s list of recommended projects is submitted before reviewing any applications. That was the intent of the council, she said, but it didn’t make it into the committee’s charge.
“I get questions about why aren’t we doing what North Haven did and spending some money on our parks? Why aren’t we spending this money like Cheshire did and upgrading these parks and other projects?” Tatta said. “A myriad of towns are spending this on infrastructure items that they then do not need to charge the taxpayers for because they can use this money in place of taxpayer money. That was our intent with that vote.”
Dickinson was not happy with the motion.
“This should be very disturbing to many people,” he said. “We need a fair process. You’re turning it into something that is not fair. That’s unkind, that’s below the standards that this community should live up to.”
“Regardless of when applications are opened, regardless of what the committee does, the only way money is spent is if the executive branch and the legislative branch agree,” he said. “So all the information will be known regardless of when the lists of this or that are provided. Everyone will know what the applications showed, what’s being recommended.”
That in turn upset Tatta, who said the council had previously come to a compromise with the mayor to spend part of the money on small businesses and nonprofits, as he prefers, and part on town projects, which the council supports.
“I take umbrage at the fact that we are accused of being unkind and unfair simply because we disagree with one person’s opinion of how to spend $13.5 million,” Tatta said. “The insinuation that none of the nine of us knows what this town wants and we’re not aware of what the people who voted for us and rely on us, what their needs are, I take offense at that.”
The council voted 5-4 to approve the motion requiring the committee to wait for the list of town projects before evaluating applications from small businesses and nonprofits.