Wallingford councilors admonish EDC as officials debate intent of ARPA funding



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WALLINGFORD — Several members of the Town Council admonished the Economic Development Commission for distributing a flyer regarding the council’s deliberations over how to allocate federal pandemic relief funds.

Councilors told commission members at Tuesday’s council meeting that they believe the language in the flyer, which was sent to businesses last week, was meant to incite residents to put pressure on the council, while commission members said it was meant to provide a firsthand perspectives from business owners.

The flyer encouraged businesses to attend Tuesday’s council meeting to speak about the economic impact of the pandemic and advocate that American Rescue Plan Act funds be devoted to businesses and nonprofits impacted by the pandemic. 

The flyer also said councilors are considering reducing the share earmarked for businesses. The town was allocated $13.1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to distribute.  

“As reported in the media and you may have read, several members of your Town Council are attempting to reduce the monies available for businesses and non-profits by allocating large sums of money to community projects before the businesses and non-profit needs are determined. We believe this tactic is misdirected and not aligned with the intention of the American Rescue Plan Act funds,” the flyer read.

Republican Councilor Craig Fishbein said the flyer created the impression the town isn’t providing funds to businesses — when it has already voted to split half of the ARPA funds between businesses and nonprofits — and by doing so is not acting in the spirit of the federal legislation behind the money.

“That is the accusation that is implied in the document and springs forward from there. Because quite frankly when I look at — I went on the Department of the Treasury’s website and I read so much about this thing, nowhere does it say that we have to use the money for businesses. Nowhere,” Fishbein said.

EDC member Rob Fritz said the intention of the flyer was not to critique where the council decides to allocate the ARPA funds, but how it goes about making that determination.

He said the commission’s preference is that relief funds not be committed until the town finishes drafting applications for businesses and nonprofits to solicit a portion of the funds and to use the responses from those parties to gauge the amount of need in the community.

“The tactic that we are referring to was not how you spend the money — that’s totally up to the Town Council,” he said. “Where we were disagreeing … is the process. It is our job to represent the businesses in this community and of all the various committees and organizations in town, the EDC is the closest to the business community of any of them and we’re their voice.

“And as a result, our simple premise was before those decisions are made, we want to make sure that all of the potential people impacted by this are heard so that you can make a more informed decision,” he said.

Though councilors described the language in the flyer as inflammatory and accusatory, they did not go so far as to take any action against the EDC. The meeting’s agenda had listed “possible action” under a section of the Town Charter that gives the council the power “to investigate any and all departments, offices and agencies of the town.”

Philosophical differences

Fishbein said part of the impasse is due to a philosophical difference between two camps on the rationale behind providing ARPA funds for businesses.

“The administration believes that this money is for an intention that almost every municipality in this state disagrees with,” he said.

In voting against finalizing drafts of the applications last month, Fishbein and several other councilors said they wanted to see stronger language to give preference for businesses with “forward-looking” needs, such as repairs, catching up on rent or improving their operations. Members of the EDC have stressed the impact of the economic shutdown imposed by the government on business owners and the prospect of using the ARPA funds to make them whole.

Republican Councilor Christina Tatta said she received emails on Feb. 16 from the consultant hired by the town to aid in the ARPA process. The consultant wrote that the mayor was leading the process and wanted to use the funds to reimburse businesses for losses incurred by the pandemic. The consultant referred to the process in that regard as “backwards looking,” Tatta said, reading the email at the meeting. 

Tatta went on to quote a second email she received from the consultant: “And by backward looking, I mean to replenish for economic hardship that has already occurred. The mayor was adamant that this was his top priority, that is versus an applicant that would be using the money for investment in the future.”

Since it has been determined that the Town Council and the mayor’s office share responsibility in allocating the ARPA funds, Tatta said she believes there has been an effort to put pressure on the council.

“It’s been agenda driven. It was decided before we were even allowed to discuss it where the money would go, and there’s been I would call it a smear campaign of the council through things like this flyer and through the communication that the purpose of ARPA is for businesses and it’s not,” she said.

Republican Councilors Autumn Allinson, Vice Chairman Thomas Laffin and Chairman Vincent Cervoni said it’s not the council’s place to second guess the decisions made by the various boards and commissions, particularly those staffed by volunteers. Laffin said he doesn’t believe that any of the language in the flyer was inaccurate and that it’s important that businesses are kept aware of what the council is doing when it may impact their operations.

“I didn't read anything inaccurate. I didn't read it either as rhetoric to incite, I read it at most as to motivate or inform your base that decisions are made by people that show up,” he said.

‘Our intent was pure’

Economic Development Specialist Tim Ryan said he drafted the flyer and stands by it as an effort to provide the council with context and information to help inform its decision making.

“If you find something there that you say is factually inaccurate, then please point it out and if that is the case I will publicly apologize,” he said.“I don’t believe that there’s anything in the flyer that is in any way, shape or form inaccurate and I really prefer not to spar with you. We are on the same team here … I would prefer to talk about intent, because our intent was pure, it was sound and it was solid.” 

Democrat Samuel Carmody said the ARPA process in general has been frustrating and the flyer added to that atmosphere. However he said it’s important that the council and EDC continue to work together to ensure the money is spent in the best manner possible.

“I think some of the wording was unwise and could have been said better, but I agree with Councilor (Vincent) Testa that I think it’s time for all of us to move on and move forward and figure out how we spend these ARPA funds to benefit our small businesses, our nonprofits and to do community projects here in town,” Carmody said. “But again, I commend you for all the work you do. I do think this letter was a mistake, but I think you’re doing the right things for Wallingford and I look forward to working with you in trying to finalize once and for all how to spend these ARPA moneys.”

Reporter Devin Leith-Yessian can be reached at dleithyessian@record-journal.com.



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