MERIDEN — The City Council in a series of votes this week formally authorized the use of federal COVID-19 relief monies to bolster a local rental assistance bank for struggling tenants, to enable the police department to upgrade its locker rooms, to support the Meriden Puerto Rican Festival, and to fund a series of farm improvements at High Hill Orchard.
The council approved three of the four requests — the Meriden police locker room expansion, support for the Meriden Puerto Rican Festival and High Hill Orchard’s revised bid for farm improvements — with little discussion prior to the votes. All of those requests passed without opposition Monday night. Two councilors, Deputy Mayor Michael Cardona and councilor Michael Rohde, abstained from voting on the Puerto Rican Festival request due to their affiliations with the festival committee.
Meanwhile, the rent bank proposal put forth by community action agency New Opportunities Inc. of Greater Meriden was the subject of a prolonged discussion before the council finally acted on it, with some councilors speaking passionately in support of and against the application.
Councilor Bruce A. Fontanella raised an issue brought up during public comment regarding the fact that New Opportunities had already received federal ARPA funding for a previous project. According to city records, that request was for close to $176,000 to support a series of infrastructure improvements at the agency’s emergency shelter for homeless residents. New Opportunities’ rent bank proposal was the second request from the agency to come before the council. Fontanella maintained that funding priority should be given to applicants that have not yet received ARPA funds.
Council Majority Leader Sonya Jelks disagreed with Fontanella’s assertion, saying that the council’s goal in authorizing ARPA funds was to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the community. Jelks said “one of the huge impacts” of the pandemic was on individuals and housing stability.
“We know that a lot of families got into difficult situations,” Jelks said. “The fact that we had not supported any large scale housing assistance program is embarrassing. ...We would do ourselves a disservice to not be prepared to keep families in their current housing whenever possible. An agency we know is proven to try to keep Meriden families still housed… that’s what the COVID money is here for,” Jelks added, adding that she personally receives phone calls from families “in desperate need” of assistance.
Rohde agreed, describing New Opportunities as the “premiere organization” that helps residents in need. He anticipated housing stability will become “a real problem in Meriden.”
“I’m just concerned, where are these people going to land?” Rohde said, adding he can’t think of anything worse than individuals being evicted from their homes and having no alternatives.
“I can’t think of anything worse than a family in that situation with no alternatives… So much of this is a result of COVID,” Rohde said, adding that since a moratorium on evictions lapsed the situation has worsened for both landlords and tenants.
Councilor Yvette Cortez similarly responded to Fontanella’s concern that New Opportunities submitted multiple applications. She said there was never a rule that the ARPA committee would not review multiple applicants from the same applicant. Like Jelks and Rohde, Cortez supported the proposal, which she said “is for a program that is going to help Meriden residents.”
Minority Leader Dan Brunet objected to the request, describing COVID-19 as being in the rearview mirror. He objected to providing rental assistance for tenants who chose not to pay rent because they “didn’t have to” under the eviction moratorium.
“The only growth industry we have in Meriden is social services and that is not economic development,” Brunet said.
Councilor Larue Graham, responding to Brunet, said he didn’t think it was “a fair representation” to characterize those who need assistance as having chosen to not pay rent.
“There were people with real hardships… I think the majority of people we’d be helping are good people in need of housing assistance,” Graham said. He used the example of choosing to fund infrastructure, like an elevator, versus funding programs that directly benefit people. “There’s no comparison to me. I will fund humans and their ability to thrive and get on their feet all day,” Graham said.
Mayor Kevin Scarpati, in his discussion of the application, said overall he feels New Opportunities’ application is something that is warranted and needed. He was in favor of reducing the overall amount to $500,000, a total he felt was “more than enough” to support about 225 households, which is the number New Opportunities was looking to support.
Scarpati said his fear was that the city would set up New Opportunities for failure, by providing a cushion for the next few years.
Meanwhile, the city has a list of infrastructure needs, including municipal buildings like City Hall. Scarpati noted the city has authorized $16 million in ARPA funds toward city projects. “It’s not enough,” he said, noting the council will later see a list of projects that the local leaders will seek state funding for: they include pool renovations at Hubbard Park, new soccer fields for youth, and an $8 million request for a new heating, ventilation and cooling system for the City Hall building itself.
“We often get complaints about air quality in this building,” Scarpati said, adding, “We’ve neglected city buildings.” Funding to support infrastructure improvements will come at increased tax rates for residents, the mayor noted.
Ultimately the measure passed, with councilors Krystle Blake, Cardona, Cortez, Fontanella, Graham, Jelks and Rohde voting for it. Brunet, Michael Carabetta, Ray Ouellet and Bob Williams Jr. voted against it.
The four funding requests totaled just over $1.71 million. The balance of local ARPA dollars that remain is $1.4 million, according to a calculation City Manager Timothy Coon provided during discussions of the New Opportunities proposal.