By Stephen Knight
This coming Tuesday, at the regular meeting of the Wallingford Town Council, discussions were to continue as to how to allocate the bulk of the $13.1 million provided to Wallingford in the American Rescue Plan Act. However, that agenda item will not be discussed, ostensibly because the consultant on the project cannot attend.
The council is deeply divided on how best to appropriate the funds, which has led to what certainly appears to be a stalemate. Fortunately, there are several town councilors who do understand the original intent of the law; who do understand why the legislation was entitled the American Rescue Plan; and who do want to first assist businesses, nonprofits, and individuals in recovering the terrible disruptions to their lives.
On the other hand, there is a contingent of councilors who want to divide the funds into three percentage allocations — without first determining the extent of the need that businesses and nonprofits may have for the funds to recover (in the case of businesses) and rebuild (in the case of nonprofits and the households that they will help).
Their lack of interest in determining the extent to which businesses and nonprofits require funding under ARPA guidelines is truly puzzling. Either these councilors have no idea of how many organizations were affected or the depth of the damage that government lockdowns and pandemic restrictions caused, because they have no actual experience as entrepreneurs or nonprofit governance, or they just don’t care. They seem hellbent to protect as much of the funding for pet community projects such that they don’t really want to reach out into the community. In other words, “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts.”
The Economic Development Commission put out a marketing piece aimed at the business community that said, in part, “… several members of your Town Council are attempting to reduce the monies available for businesses and nonprofits by allocating large sums of money to community projects before the business and nonprofit needs are determined. We believe this tactic is misdirected and not aligned with the intention of the American Rescue Plan Act funds.” The flyer goes on to request that small business owners attend the Town Council meeting where the applications would be finalized.
The whole purpose of the EDC is to attract, advocate for, and assist businesses. Of all the entities in our municipal government, they have witnessed the hardship that so many of them have suffered. Is it any wonder that they would call out to their constituent businesses to weigh in on this issue to educate those recalcitrant Town Councilors as to the hardships they suffered and the help they may be needing?
In service to that needed education, let me introduce Cheryl Ellison, owner of Cheryl’s Hair and Nails located on Center Street. I was in her shop the other day, and in our conversation on this subject, she graciously allowed me to tell part of her story about the impact COVID-19 the disease and COVID-19 the government edicts and directives had on her business and her life. Hers is the classic small business that she grew herself through her skills, her personality and her dogged determination. Due to a situation that no one could have predicted and over which she had absolutely no control, she could have lost it all.
On March 20, 2020, the State of Connecticut declared that all hair salons in the state be closed to slow the spread of COVID-19. For the next 73 days, her income was zero. She was allowed to reopen on June 1st under a thick blanket of requirements and restrictions never before required, such as only having one customer in the shop at one time, changing masks and smocks after every customer, needing loads of personal protective equipment (PPE) purchased at her expense, and many other regulations that severely impacted the number of customers she could attend to (and never mind that many of them were understandably leery of actually leaving their home for fear of contracting the virus).
Some town councilors will say, “She hasn’t shown any hardship because she’s still in business.” But if you really compare the numbers month to month, see how much money she spent for PPE, and note how little she received from the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), a very different story emerges. She could have thrown up her hands, not radically adjusted her work life and maybe squeaked by. Then her numbers would clearly show financial hardship and eligibility would be automatic.
But as most successful entrepreneurs do, she refused to quit. She could have worked five days; she worked seven. She didn’t work eight hours a day; she worked ten or twelve. She could have suspended payment of her rent and utilities; she paid them out of her savings instead. How could our public officials turn their backs on her if she applies for ARPA funds?
Hers is not a unique story in our town. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of similar accounts of businesses that survived the pandemic economic calamity by sacrifice, creativity and determination. And these stories of suffering and survival need to be heard by those public officials who would rather not know because they see it as conflicting with their political ambitions.
Thanks to those Wallingford town councilors with the values to understand that ARPA was passed to help small businesses to recover, for nonprofits to again have the resources to help those whose lives were devastated in the past two years. The original purpose to help people comes first. After that responsibility has been fulfilled, then — and only then – can the remainder be allocated to lesser priorities.
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.