News

Vergennes-area towns eye pandemic funding

We’re looking to digitize as much as much as we possibly and legally can. Permits, dog licenses, paying taxes, anything you can do online.
— Panton selectboard Chair Howard Hall

VERGENNES — A city sewer system upgrade, broadband expansion and records digitization are among possibilities as officials in Vergennes and its neighboring towns begin to look how to use the collective total of roughly $2.3 million they will receive in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding.

Congress passed that federal $1.9 trillion act earlier this year, and it included $19.53 billion for local government use.

Those funds will be paid to local communities over the next five years. Towns have until the end of 2024 to finalize plans for using the money under still evolving federal guidelines, and must use it by 2026.

In general, federal guidelines — not all of which apply to rural Vermont communities — state the funding can:

•  Support public health expenditures, by funding COVID-19 mitigation efforts, medical expenses, behavioral healthcare, and certain public health and safety staff;

•  Address negative economic impacts caused by the public health emergency, including economic harms to workers, households, small businesses, impacted industries, and the public sector;

•  Provide premium pay for essential workers, offering additional support to those who have borne and will bear the greatest health risks because of their service in critical infrastructure sectors;

•  Replace lost public sector revenue, using this funding to provide government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue experienced due to the pandemic;

•  Invest in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure, making necessary investments to improve access to clean drinking water, support vital wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, and to expand access to broadband internet.

VERGENNES

Vergennes is due about $756,000, according to City Manager Ron Redmond. Like most communities, city leadership is waiting for clarity before wading deeply into the decision-making process.

“We really haven’t had any substantive discussions about this at all,” Redmond said.

That said, he believes it is his role to make recommendations because councilors and residents alike could benefit from “some boundaries when you start discussing” what to do with the ARPA funds in order to consider how to answer the question, “How can we have a lasting impact on our city?”

Redmond said some of his suggestions will be based on goals he set for his first year as city manager that also coincide with ARPA criteria.

Certainly, the mention of sewer infrastructure in the ARPA guidelines caught his attention. Vergennes has for three decades been operating under Vermont Agency of Natural Resource orders to solve its sewer system’s habit of overflowing into Otter Creek during heavy rainfalls.

Redmond thus will suggest the council and residents consider putting ARPA funds toward the long-planned upgrade of the city’s aging wastewater and stormwater collection system and treatment plant, an effort now estimated at $23 million to $25 million.

For example, city officials and design engineers believe state and federal grants might cover 80% of the costs. That could leave Vergennes to float a $5 million bond, and $500,000 of ARPA money would reduce the bond, Redmond said.

Another Redmond suggestion for ARPA funds is a coordinated collective effort to promote Vergennes shops and restaurants, which he considers to be a vital part of the city’s welfare and identity.

Redmond has recommended “a two-year rebranding and marketing plan to reinvigorate the Vergennes retail and dining sector” with an investment of up to $50,000 that ARPA funding could cover, he said.

He wants to enlist the Vergennes Partnership — the private-public entity charged with enhancing the city’s downtown — and hire an outside consultant to help guide the work.

Putting $550,000 into those two purposes still leaves plenty of cash to spend. Redmond estimates the city has incurred an extra $70,000 of COVID expenses that could be ARPA-eligible.

He said he’ll brainstorm with his peers in Middlebury and Bristol, consult with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT), and listen to councilors, other city workers and residents for more ideas.

Redmond said other ideas include looking for back pay for public safety workers and seeing if the city could make direct grants to its businesses or nonprofits. This summer will bring public discussions to seek more ideas and discuss ones already on the table.

“We need to come together and figure out how we can make the most of it. We have a smart community,” he said.

FERRISBURGH

Ferrisburgh has not discussed formally how to spend the roughly $800,000 the town will receive, according to selectboard Chair Jessica James.

But James said she and Town Clerk Pam Cousino, as did many other local officials, attended a May 18 VLCT seminar, and James said she came away with some thoughts about what to share with her colleagues.

“We have to be very deliberate and patient with how we roll things out,” James said.

She added that further changes and clarifications are expected from the U.S. Treasury to add to the 150 pages already in place.

James said nothing would be done without residents’ input.

“We have to hold some sort of public engagement of priorities and options,” James said. “We just have to go into this with a high level of transparency.”

High on the list could be the $250,000 recently requested by Maple Broadband, the county’s nonprofit effort to bring high-speed internet service to rural areas. James said some areas in Ferrisburgh are well-served, particularly along Route 7 corridor, but others, particularly in West Ferrisburgh, on the west side of Otter Creek, lack good service.

“We still have areas where it just stops halfway down the road,” she said.

James said the community could seek reimbursement for extra costs for safety and protective measures incurred by its fire department, as well as COVID-19 work at the town office and community center.

Any support for local nonprofits and other entities, such as food shelves, could also qualify.

“We’re encouraged to collaborate with all the community partners and organizations that provide services for our towns,” James said.

SMALLER TOWNS

According to Addison Town Clerk Marilla Webb, the town selectboard has not yet honed in on how to spend its roughly $400,000 in ARPA funds, but officials have some ideas.

The town has just completed a $780,000 effort to install an in-ground septic system to serve town offices, the fire station, its planned future town hall on Route 22A, and the church next to the town hall that deeded the building back to the town in exchange for the septic connection.

Webb said town officials will explore whether the ARPA money can retroactively support that project.

They’ll probably also explore whether some of the money could be used to help renovate the structurally sound, but deteriorating former town hall at the corner of Routes 17 and 22A. 

She hopes ARPA funding can further the town’s efforts to digitize its records. A grant has helped Addison digitize its past 40 years of land records, Webb said, and doing the same to its zoning files would also be helpful to residents and officials.

Webb noted that although much of Addison is well served by fiber-optic internet service, the selectboard recently voted to join the rest of the county towns in Maple Broadband.

In Waltham, selectboard Chair Andrew Martin said in an email exchange the topic of the small town’s roughly $140,000 of ARPA funding has come before the board, but only briefly.

“… until we have further clarity on the extent of the funds, and most importantly how the funds can be utilized, we have set the discussions aside pending more detailed information,” Martin said.

He was asked if Maple Broadband had come up in those discussions.

“We have discussed it, and would at least look at it,” Martin said.

Panton has also discussed Maple Broadband in its selectboard meetings, according to board Chair Howard Hall, but officials have come up with something else to which they’d rather devote more of the roughly $200,000 the town is expecting.

“The most exciting thing any town can do,” Hall said, “is digitizing records. It’s extremely important.”

Hall laughed and added, “If we said we were getting a new excavator, people would say, ‘Oh, cool. We can see that thing.’ We say we’re digitizing records, and they say, ‘What? Really?’”

By digitizing, Hall said he means not just making records electronically searchable, but also streamlining license purchases and the issuance of permits, for example, to make town office employees more efficient. 

“We’re looking to digitize as much as much as we possibly and legally can. Permits, dog licenses, paying taxes, anything you can do online,” he said.

Expanded internet access for residents also makes sense, Hall said.

“I think we can also give money to Maple Broadband. Maple Broadband is looking for $50,000 from the town,” he said.

But before any decisions are final, Hall said selectboard members will carefully review all the options and listen to residents.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Hall said. “It’s like a Christmas gift. Be careful how you spend it. You’ll never be given this money again. Choose wisely, as they say, grasshopper.”

Share this story:

More News
News

How are we handling the opioid overdose crisis? Local discussion

Three local professionals will discuss their experiences navigating the opioid crisis Mond … (read more)

News

Middlebury man killed in Weybridge crash

David K. Ricklefs, 53, lost control of the Subaru Impreza he was driving on Morgan Horse F … (read more)

News

Documentary puts Vermont food insecurity center stage

A Middlebury filmmaker’s new film charts the evolution and impacts of the wildly successfu … (read more)

Share this story: