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With ARPA Money Coming In, Vermont Towns Make Plans To Spend Millions

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Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
VPR
In Brandon, the selectboard created a grid to help decide which projects should be chosen for the more than $1 million they received in ARPA funding.

Every town in Vermont is getting some money from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA. The federal COVID-19 relief package is based on population counts, and some municipalities are getting more than a million dollars.

The program has some restrictions, but it’s largely up to each town or city to decide what to do with the money.

About 15 years ago, the town of Waitsfield voted down a wastewater treatment plant.

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Ann Marie Harmon lives in town and says some people feared that the project would bring in unwanted development and change the character of Waitsfield.

But that vote, she says, is one reason why the housing shortage today is so bad in the Mad River Valley.

“At that time, we simply did not connect the dots that by not incorporating wastewater, we were in fact shutting the door for potential housing projects,” Harmon said, one day recently in the section of town known as Irasville.

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Ann Marie Harmon stands in the section of town known as Irasville. Harmon wants the town to use some of its ARPA money to do a wastewater study to help develop more housing.

Harmon is on the planning commission, and she says developers have looked at different properties in town, but when they learn there’s no wastewater system, they move on.

Waitsfield is getting about $506,000 in ARPA money, and Harmon wants to use some of it towards an updated feasibility study for a wastewater treatment plant.

“I mean if ARPA is for infrastructure development, here we are,” Harmon said. “Let’s put the infrastructure in for housing.”

“This could be an incredibly impactful moment for communities."
- Katie Buckley, Vermont League of Cities and Towns

The discussion that’s happening in Waitsfield is exactly the kind that Katie Buckley is hoping will take place across the state.

“This could be an incredibly impactful moment for communities,” said Buckley, who is with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

Buckley wants towns to be thinking big about this once-in-a-generation windfall, and making those connections between infrastructure, housing and smart development

She says the way this pile of federal money is being doled out is exactly opposite of what usually happens. Towns are used to tracking down grant programs, identifying projects that fit, and then applying for the money. Sometimes you get it; sometimes you don’t.

But with this COVID relief, the federal government is saying, “Here’s the money. Tell us how you’ll spend it.”

“To get noncompetitve funding dropped in your lap allows you to think in a completely different way,” Buckley said.

Towns have until the end of 2024 to decide how to spend their funds, so there’s no rush.

But Buckley is encouraging boards to start conversations now to hear what the people in their towns want to do with the money.

In the town of Rutland, the board held two meetings to gather input about the more than $1.2 million in federal money the town will be getting.

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Selectboard chairwoman Mary Ashcroft says the board has a list of 24 ideas that were suggested.

“The people in our town are pretty creative, and most Vermont towns are very creative,” Ashcroft said. “So we hope that if we hear a lot of good ideas and we can’t do some, the people will at least feel that we have listened to them, and try to sort through what they wanted to see us do.”

Ashcroft says the town has already earmarked some of the money to improve the air filtering system in the town hall, and there are some big proposed projects, including starting a revolving loan fund and extending water and sewer lines into a new part of town.

"There’s a lot there,” she said. “Big picture stuff, because it looks like we’re going to have enough money to do some big picture things, but also, you know, the smaller things that we can do, like getting those filters and purifiers for town offices.”

In Brandon, the selectboard has also been reaching out to hear from people about their thoughts on the more than $1 million the town will be getting.

“You know this is probably a chance for us to do something that would be a legacy that would be something that a generation or two could make use of."
- Seth Hopkins, Brandon Selectboard

Board chairman Seth Hopkins says the town is considering building a new highway garage, or expanding its solar power array.

“You know, this is probably a chance for us to do something that would be a legacy that would be something that a generation or two could make use of,” Hopkins said. “And the worst thing that could be said, in terms of my point of view, is that we squandered this money. Like, I don’t want anyone to look back at us and say, ‘Boy, they really, you know, missed the boat on this, and they spent this on something that there’s no benefit to anymore.'”

The Feds dropped the first installment of the ARPA money into the bank accounts of each town last month. A second installment is expected in the fall, with the full payment arriving over the next year.

What was your town's ARPA award? Explore below:

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Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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