WALLINGFORD — The Town Council voted to allocate $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to reopen Community Pool, however, councilors believe it to be another symbolic vote that will not receive the mayor’s support.
The 6 to 3 vote was made during Tuesday’s council meeting, with Councilors Autumn Allinson, Thomas Laffin and Vincent Cervoni in opposition. It earmarked $5 million of the federal pandemic relief funds for the renovation of the pool, which has been closed since 2019.
Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said he believes allocating ARPA funds for Community Pool is inappropriate. He feels the funds should go towards businesses impacted by the pandemic and nonprofits seeking to help residents recover. He noted that the town’s Law Department has issued an opinion that both the council and the mayor would have to agree on any use of ARPA funds.
“I want to talk about values,” Dickinson said. “Read the Department of Treasury description of what that ARPA money is for. We’re saying rebuilding a pool is of equal value or more value than assisting people hurt in COVID?”
Tuesday’s action came after the council unanimously voted last month to support the rebidding of the pool renovation project, while recognizing only the mayor has the authority to order the bids. When Councilor Christina Tatta asked Tuesday if the project has been rebid, Dickinson said he does not intend to do so at this time.
Riley O’Connell, who ran for mayor against Dickinson in 2021, encouraged the council to vote for the $5 million allocation, saying that the federal government’s deadline for spending ARPA money gives the council some leverage.
“I think this is the only time where you do have some weight behind the vote because it’s ARPA funds,” O’Connell said. “Because within about a year and a half, two years, that money does have to be spent. So if you choose to allocate it, even if the mayor’s administration doesn’t agree, you can hold those funds until it gets to that year and a half, two year deadline, because I have to imagine that he wouldn’t just allow it to go back to the federal government.”
The council originally voted to allocate $7.4 million for the pool project, however, Dickinson vetoed the measure in May 2020, citing uncertainty around the burgeoning pandemic. Over recent months, the mayor has said current economic conditions, including inflation, make it a bad time to embark on a major capital project such as overhauling the North Main Street Extension pool.
Councilor Craig Fishbein said he now regrets voting against overriding the pool veto in 2020 and lamented Dickinson’s assumption that construction costs have risen prohibitively high is not being tested by soliciting bids.
“It’s unfair that we sit here and say ‘Mayor, test the economy, see what it would cost.’ And that overture is not being met,” Fishbein said.
The council also voted 6 to 3 against approving drafts of the applications that businesses and nonprofits would use to seek ARPA funds. Councilors Allinson, Laffin and Cervoni voted in favor of approving the drafts.
Laffin, who headed the council’s ARPA subcommittee, said he’s uncertain why the applications weren’t approved.
“I thought it would have just gone through, so that we can get to the next phase more easily,” he said on Friday.
Laffin, who is the council vice chair, hopes there will be minimal delay in approving the applications so a consultant hired by the town can create a web portal for businesses and nonprofits to apply.
Some councilors said they wanted stronger language in the applications that gives preference to businesses seeking funds to recover from the pandemic — such as catching up on rent or making capital investments — as opposed to replenishing lost revenue.
Fishbein said he believes the applications can be finalized if Town Attorney Janice Small and Jack Reagan, of the consulting firm UHY Advisors, make the revisions councilors are suggesting.
Members of the nonprofit and economic development communities spoke before the council to make the case that their respective sectors receive a share of the ARPA funds.
Ken Welch, president of the nonprofit Coalition for a Better Wallingford, said the process has been longer than many would have liked, but he believes it is nearly ready to move forward.
“I think we have — despite a couple of words, a couple of semantics — a very good application ... and it’s time to move,” he said. “I’m speaking from our own perspective, we are definitely looking at forward looking projects and programs and the need is growing every day and we’re already behind.”
Economic Development Commission Chair Joe Mirra said that the ARPA money was intended to help businesses.
“We’ve got to look at these ARPA funds as a good investment in the small businesses in this town,” he said. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, these are our neighbors ... How they got through it — I don’t know, I give them a lot of credit. But this is money to help them get back on their feet and move their business forward.”
O’Connell said he feels the most effective way to help the community recover would be to make sure all of the needs identified by nonprofits are met with ARPA funds before other expenditures are considered.
“There are real heart-wrenching stories of business owners big, medium, small in Wallingford that have suffered, as all of us have suffered from the pandemic,” he said. “But that number of heart-wrenching stories is multiplied by a factor of thousands when it comes to the number of lives that our nonprofits in town impact and help dramatically.”