OPINION: How the ARPA committee reviewed applications

 By Mike Brodinsky

The executive director of the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford recently wrote a column (R-J, 4/4/23) about Wallingford’s effort to distribute money Wallingford received pursuant to the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).  She was impatient for her grant. We understand the United Way’s interest in quickly funding nonprofits; and on this point, we have common ground. The Town Council needs to step up.

Unfortunately, however, someone set up the executive director with false information so she could disparage the ARPA Applications Review Committee.  She wrote that she “found out” that our committee reviewed a substantial number of applications, but only $1 million of the $6 million allocated had been approved. That was proof, she concluded, that some members of the committee were prejudiced against applicants, biased in favor of public-sector projects, and therefore scored some applications unreasonably low.

These assumptions were wrong. And it is disturbing that someone would provide the executive director with false information for use in a piece to be published in the R-J. But it happened. And the bad information now enjoys wide distribution.  So let’s set the record straight.

Our committee reviewed applications that requested about $2.5 million. We’ve recommended applications that ask for about 2/3 of that sum. The committee, moreover, has assessed and scored 21 applications from nonprofits. We’ve recommended 18.

The three applications from nonprofits we did not recommend had trouble fitting the council’s criteria. One nonprofit that applied for financial assistance was financially very strong. It didn’t need assistance; it was stronger after than pandemic than before. It had $1 million in cash and reserves. Another nonprofit couldn’t demonstrate that the pandemic caused its woes because it failed to provide financial documentation to support its claim. Committee members, moreover, thought membership and fundraising problems pre-dated the pandemic. Moreover, given the amount of its request, it was looking for a windfall not a proportional response. But it benefited from a councilor’s conflict of interest, which is what triggered the chain of events that is still unfolding. The third applicant was a regional social club with a narrower reach in Wallingford and little history of service to Wallingford residents. It got a low score.

As for the business applications, all do not fit the stereotype of suffering, struggling businesses that are still reeling from the pandemic. Not at all. Some of the business applicants have bounced back nicely.  Some are making more money than they ever have. For them, the impact of the pandemic dissipated. Moreover, many have already received substantial federal funds which got them through the bad business cycle. Any effort, therefore, to paint all the business applicants as needy because of the pandemic does not hold up to the scrutiny we gave these applications. 

A member of the committee scores an application by trying to apply criteria to the evidence presented. I always felt I had a fiduciary duty in this regard.  It’s a duty of trust and care that attaches when handling money that does not belong to me. I have heard some argue, however, that applicants are entitled to ARPA grants because it’s federal money and we have a lot of it to give.  It’s an attractive, populist argument. Based upon the said-supposed intent of ARPA, they say, we should give the money out to businesses and nonprofits more or less indiscriminately. The committee has not done that, and that’s the rub. 

For me, the task of recommending who gets what, requires a recognition that public money should be distributed to private interests only when the letter and spirit of the rules provide for that. But giving out money when it’s against the rules is wrong, because it’s money that would otherwise belong to Wallingford. There’s a delicate balance involved, and I’m not sure that’s understood.

In an election year, politicians’ instincts veer to a more populist approach.  A majority of the councilors have reminded the committee in a very muscular voice, and in a very questionable vote, that its populist instincts are now surging and taking charge. If that’s the town’s destiny, the council should act on their instincts without delay. The United Way has waited long enough.

Mike Brodinsky is chair of the Wallingford ARPA Applications Review Committee.


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