WALLINGFORD — Late changes to an application for an ARPA grant from a town nonprofit before the Town Council this week prompted charges of unfairness, and one council member said the federal program has caused “chaos.”
And while a majority of the council approved it by a vote of 4-3, the item failed because it needed a minimum of five votes to pass. Two members — Council Chairman and Mayor-elect Vincent Cervoni and Councilor Jason Zandri — were absent because they were out of state, Vice Chairman Tom Laffin said.
The Coalition for a Better Wallingford requested approval to change a program for which ARPA money was awarded from a preschool program to one highlighting the abuse of drugs and alcohol. The coalition recently welcomed a new director, who requested the change from the program requested by the former director.Coalition changes course
Town Attorney Janis Small said that in its application, the coalition asked for two things — assistance directly to the organization and $50,000 to run a daycare and preschool program, The ARPA Selection Committee approved the direct assistance but declined to recommend the program, but when the application got to the Town Council, it approved both.
But after investigating with the town's Youth and Social Services and Health departments what would go into the daycare and preschool program, coalition officials determined it wouldn’t be possible to do because of the state licenses required. So it changed course and decided upon a different program that would address alcohol and drug abuse and how best to deal with it, which required council approval.
"The Youth and Social Services Department and the Health Department determined that the program that they originally requested earmarked toward daycares and preschool was thought that it would be better suited for them to stay in their wheelhouse in terms of education and dealing with drug education, so they did redraft the program focus on that," Small said. "They have a new director now. That program has been reviewed by the consultant and it meets the qualifications so it's here for your consideration."
"I definitely agree with the change in programming being moved away from children and towards adults," Councilor Autumn Allinson said. "We certainly have a huge need in Wallingford and I also understand from the coalition's perspective, when you apply for a program under one director and then you get the funds for the program under a new director, there's potential for a change of course. I respect their coming back to us and modifying that program accordingly."Fishbein says change in request unfair
But Councilor Craig Fishbein, who also served on the ARPA committee, said he didn't believe allowing them to come back after the deadline was fair to other organizations, including those who, for one reason or another, weren't able to submit an application at all.
"A fundamental portion of this whole process from my perspective has been fairness," Fishbein said. "What we have before us tonight is not fair. We had people come to us after the deadline and say 'we couldn't put in an application' and this body said no, the deadline was the deadline."
Fishbein said he had a problem with the application when it was before the committee and, because of that, scored it too low to be approved.
"When this application came before the ARPA Application Review Committee, I expressly said it can't operate in their space, that they have no one licensed to do this work, and I faulted the application," he said. “When you look at the scores, I was the lowest score. So what we have before us tonight is the coalition coming before us saying we don't operate in this space, we've never done this before, it's already done by others in town, so it's sort of like exactly what I said at the meeting.”
"It's a totally new application," he said. "I don't think it's fair for this body to approve a totally new application when we have others who couldn't put in an application at all. One businessman had COVID and couldn't get his application in time and we said no. What we have before us is totally new. It's unfortunate, but if we're going to be fair, I can't approve this. The committee never saw it."Dickinson: Program will benefit town
Mayor William Dickinson Jr. said the program the coalition is asking to be funded is in the town's best interest to approve.
"I look at this as a program that is really the town of Wallingford as much as the Coalition for a Better Wallingford, working hand in hand as this money is spent to help all of our citizens and alert them to the problems that arise out of addiction," he said. "I think if we focus on what the purpose is and how the money will be spent, a lot of the other issues don't weigh that heavily in terms of the nature of this whole question. This is not just the coalition as an outside organization. This is a program that is totally endorsed by town departments."
Fishbein said one of his concerns is that the coalition does not have staff that includes counselors or a social worker, which a program like that would need. Instead, he sees billboards that advertise things like the recently held Red Ribbon Week, and police drug take-back program,
"One of my concerns is that during the last budget season, we were told that the coalition did not hire individuals to work with people that have drug addictions, that they use the money for billboards," he said. "Drugs are a problem and when I go to Dunkin’ Donuts and I see a billboard that's been up there for a month advertising that the police are going to take back drugs at the end of the month, and I'm getting a call from a mom whose son just overdosed, I'm like, this doesn't make a lot of sense."
"It does kind of give you a pause,” Councilor Joseph Marrone said. “This isn't what they conceived of when they submitted the application and now we are changing it around to make it something more after the deadline to make it feasible for the coalition. It's sort of the haphazard way that this came together that gives me pause."Willing to bend ‘in midst of all this chaos’
Allinson said she too could see a problem with how the application is being handled, but believes it's in the town's best interest to approve it.
"I hesitate because we didn't offer this opportunity to others, but I'm trying to give it the benefit of the doubt by saying I trust” Coalition Director Mandy Miranda, Allinson said. "There was a change in leadership in the midst of all this chaos that was ARPA, and so I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt and see the coalition and their new director be able to do some amazing things with the funding."