WALLINGFORD — As the Town Council continues to approve requests for American Rescue Plan Act grants from businesses and nonprofits, so too does criticism of that process continue, most recently from a councilor and member of the committee that reviewed the applications.
The town received $13.5 million in federal funds to be used to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. While many municipalities used their allotments solely for municipal projects, the town decided to include grants for nonprofits and small businesses that suffered in that time, creating an application process and a review committee to decide who would get the grants.
The council’s agenda last Tuesday included a request to approve $292,000 in grants to several businesses, which was approved. It was placed on the consent agenda, which is a list of items that are not anticipated to prompt any discussion or opposition, but council members are free to request them be removed before the consent agenda as a whole is approved, which Councilor Craig Fishbein did.
“I recognize businesses were hurt during the pandemic and we have had the thrust that we have to use this money to fill that hole,” Fishbein said.
In September 2022, after the ARPA Selection Committee, of which Fishbein is a member, was formed, the council began talking about how it would function, he said.
“The business application we made expressly (made) hardship (a condition). We required that individuals had to show they were negatively impacted during the pandemic so as to avail themselves of taxpayer dollars,” he said.
Businesses were required to submit financial information for the years 1999, 2000 and 2001. One application from Supercuts has been on and off the agenda over the last month or so, Fishbein said, because it was determined that information was missing from the application. In that case, the applicant is given the opportunity to provide the information in return before the committee, he said. The business listed that it had received PPP loans but did not list the amount of those loans, he said, which should’ve been caught by the consultant the town hired to assist in the process.
“In their review of the application, they should have noted that it is an incomplete application. It never should have gotten to the committee. The committee itself should have noticed it was an incomplete application,” he said.
According to his own research, the business received $179,609 in PPP loans, which were forgiven, Fishbein said. “And that’s net,” he said. That money more than made up for the decrease in gross revenue they experienced during the pandemic, he said, which should have made them ineligible for the $25,000 ARPA grant they requested.
“We are responsible for making sure that we are giving this money to the businesses that we have been told should be the recipients,” he said. “This is not just ‘put in an application because you’re going to get money.’”
But that is what it has become, he said.
“I think ARPA has devolved - I think there was very good intention behind it to begin with,” he said. But it has turned into the town just writing a check, because an application was received, he said. “It’s unfortunate, he said. “I don’t think the federal government ever intended it to be that way but that’s what we have.”
Council chairman Vincent Cervoni said he is the one who puts items on the consent, agenda, including request for approval for ARPA grants, but the process allows for items to be removed from the consent agenda for discussion, as was this one.
The Supercuts application was returned to the consultant for an opinion on the PPP money, Cervoni said, and the consultant said the application met the guidelines.
Councilor Tom Laffin said that after the Supercuts application was initially questioned, the owner told him that the PPP money was for three locations they owned, not for just the Wallingford location, while the revenue information submitted to the committee was limited to the Wallingford store.
Councilor Autumn Allinson pointed out that the ARPA Selection Committee has completed its work, and the council needs to address the applications before it.
“I don’t feel comfortable sending any applications back to the committee at this point,” she said. “I don’t see what the difference would be. We did offer people the opportunity to resubmit. While we can disagree about what we view as a hardship I think there is more that goes into it. We have established the process and have been pretty consistent.”
“We spent a lot of time before we even appointed the committee to try to make it as fair of process as we possibly could,” Councilor Jason Zandri said.