OPINION: ARPA funds: Use it or lose it

By Lorraine Connelly

Before the 4th of July holiday, the Wallingford Town Council concluded a five-hour meeting by agreeing on a series of guidelines for awarding businesses and nonprofits a share of the $13.1 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds allocated to the town. During the meeting Jack Reagan, the UHY consultant who has guided the town on the application process, quipped, “In the words of the immortal (NFL coach) Hank Stram, we have matriculated the ball down the field tonight.”

My husband has fond memories of listening to the NFL broadcast team of Jack Buck and Hank Stram and their playful repartee during football radio broadcasts. Stram, like baseball’s Yogi Berra, could offer a good sport malapropism to lighten the mood.  Another bit of Stram’s pithy wisdom, perhaps more appropriate to the council’s ARPA fund deliberations, is “Yesterday is a cancelled check. Today is cash on the line. Tomorrow is a promissory note.”

With high inflation, spiraling gas prices, the shapeshifting of the COVID virus, and the pernicious consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, political prognosticators are expecting Republicans to reclaim control of the House of Representatives in November. Could these projected midterm results jeopardize the status of ARPA funding? Could Wallingford’s ARPA promissory note be called in before monies have been spent?

I put this question to Mary Mushinsky, state representative for the 85th District, who replied, “When I sought guidance from Congresswoman (Rosa) DeLauro’s office, her staff recommended that we disperse our town’s funds prior to the next Congress taking their seats. That way we don’t have to return unspent money if the new Congress decides to pull it back.” 

Remember, it was only last summer that the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 against Texas and other Republican-led states seeking to strike down Obamacare. Republicans had led legal efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act since 2016. Who’s to say similar challenges to ARPA programs are not in the offing if a new party takes control of Congress?

This possibility makes the ongoing standoff between Mayor Bill Dickinson and the Town Council regarding use of ARPA funds even more disconcerting.  The mayor and the Economic Development Commission have been adamant about the priority of ARPA funding: the monies, they assert, should go towards businesses impacted by the pandemic and nonprofits seeking to help residents recover.

While their “originalist” reading of ARPA guidelines has not wavered, some towns have used this once-in-a-generation funding windfall for various municipal projects. Cheshire allocated $2 million of their ARPA money for a public park expansion project, and Meriden committed $2.2 million to upgrade the town’s linear trail and parks. At an earlier meeting, Wallingford’s Town Council did vote to earmark $5 million in ARPA funds to reopen Community Pool which has been closed since 2019. However, many view this as a symbolic vote, and one not likely to receive Mayor Dickinson’s support.

At their June 28 meeting, the council approved the hiring of an outside attorney to provide a second legal opinion regarding which part of the town government has the authority to allocate and spend ARPA funds under the town’s charter. Notes Mushinsky, “ARPA funding decisions use the typical town budget process. In Wallingford’s form of government, both the chief elected official [the mayor] and the Council decide the disbursement.”

While the mayor and council remain at loggerheads as to who should be the final arbiter of ARPA funding, the delayed deployment of this money brings the risk of it being lost with a new congressional majority. It would be a shame to leave $13.1 million on the table because of the inaction of town officials.

Wallingford is not an outlier, however. Many municipalities are “behind” in their ARPA allocations. A database of municipalities on the U.S. Treasury’s website shows that of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities, only 21 have submitted interim plans for their ARPA funds.

Freshmen Town Councilors Autumn Allinson and Sam Carmody weigh in on ARPA funding. Says Carmody, “The Town Council has been willing to work in a bipartisan manner to move this process forward. However, the mayor’s unwillingness to compromise continues to delay this process at a moment when time is of the essence.” Allinson remains hopeful: “I do agree that we need to proceed with haste, and I believe we are doing so by nominating individuals for the applicant review panel so we can progress in that area and proceed with the application.” 

While some feel that the town has moved the ball down the field with its ARPA administration, I’m reminded of tennis star Jimmy Connors oft-quoted: “Use it or lose it.” In his tennis game, the mayor has likely benefited from forward momentum in delivering winning shots. Let’s hope this lesson is heeded where Wallingford’s ARPA plans are concerned. It’s time to stop the endless volleying between the mayor and the council and put these significant monies into play.

Lorraine Connelly is a writer and longtime Wallingford resident.


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