Editorial: How to spend ARPA funds
As Addison County towns contemplate how to spend the windfall of federal ARPA funds, here’s a contrarian voice to the chorus championing more public discussion — which revolves around social needs (housing, poverty relief, aid for this or that). In this case, too many voices confuse best options. That’s because while the ARPA funds represent a significant windfall for small towns, it’s not so much that it can solve multiple ills.
Take Panton. The town of 677 residents will receive about $200,000 of ARPA funds to use as they will. That’s about $300 per capita, which is a rough measure of what each town will receive. In an earlier story, Panton Selectboard Chair Howard Hall said one consideration was to use some of those funds to digitize municipal records — a need he says the town desperately needs but would be hard to get passed in the general fund budget.
It’s a good example of a one-time expense put to good use.
Larger towns will have more leeway. Middlebury’s ARPA funds amount to $2.65 million; Bristol’s is $1.2 million; and Vergennes will get $772,000. In total, Addison County’s 23 towns will receive about $11 million, which must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by 2026.
Now that the rules of how the money can be spent are determined, the conversation this Town Meeting is figuring out the best ways to spend it. No doubt, each town will have its own special considerations.
But one effective strategy is to focus ARPA funds on crucial long-term projects that town residents would not likely fund otherwise.
Developing broadband coverage is one need that comes to mind. That is, local taxpayers will fund road and bridge construction on their own, as well as funds to send their children to school. But would they pass a $200,000 bond to build-out broadband coverage to the last mile? Probably not.
Moreover, because Maple Broadband (which covers the bulk of Addison County) is committed to reaching every customer throughout the county, a key determinant of their success will be to reach critical mass early. That is, they need to get x-number of customers signed up quickly so they can rely on that recurring revenue to build out the rest of the county. Eight county towns have already designated about $50,000 each, but similar (or greater) contributions from many of the other dozen towns would be a huge help.
Larger towns, obviously, have more options on ARPA spending. Several have already decided on using some of the money to support municipal water and sewer projects — large one-time expenses that create a long-term benefit and help keep property taxes down.
And smaller towns might want to use some of these funds to refurbish municipal town halls, an idea long championed by Addison County Regional Planning Executive Director Adam Lougee.
HELPING THE CLIMATE
Another option, for those slightly larger Vermont communities with schools and town commercial centers, is to consider providing chargers for electric vehicles in public places, and to encourage private developers to do the same (with or without local subsidies.) It’s a concept that has yet to be embraced by most area communities, but the need is coming faster than most think.
Here are a few facts to consider:
• Automotive manufacturers are gearing up for an EV-only future.
• New federal legislation provides lucrative incentives to buy EVs.
• In other countries, once EVs have reached 5% of the market, annual growth rates have doubled.
• EVs currently are 5.3% of new vehicle sales in the U.S.
• By 2025, the EV market share of new vehicles in the U.S. is projected to hit 25% and it will hit 50% a few years later. That’s hard to imagine, but if it’s even close to true, we’re not ready to support that system in our public spaces.
We also know that transportation accounts for 40% of Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions; more than any other sector.
The good news is that moving to EVs as quickly as possible dramatically helps lower Vermont’s carbon footprint — addressing one of the biggest challenges of our times.
But while choosing to buy an EV is a personal decision, the ability to recharge them in at-large locations throughout our larger towns will be a public decision and a limiting factor.
It’s a classic chicken-and-egg scenario: the more public EV chargers there are, the faster the move to EVs will be, but until there are ample places to recharge them (outside the home), the public will remain reluctant to buy — and the hazards of a warming climate multiply.
Technological advances are also making EV chargers easier and less expensive to install. One Vermont firm, Norwich-based Solaflect (which has long-had solar panel trackers at Middlebury’s Vermont Sun fitness center), now has a stand-alone EV charger that can charge four vehicles at a time without tying into the electrical grid (eliminating that significant expense of digging up the ground or parking lots to bury lines underground.) This makes it easy to locate Level 2 chargers in existing parking lots (like behind Middlebury’s municipal building, the Marble Works, near the courthouse, shopping plazas, area inns, school parking lots and the like,) without worrying about many construction-related issues. Moreover, the sooner that happens for retail districts, the more apt those centers (including the downtowns) are to attract shoppers who drive EVs.
This becomes an economic development draw supporting local commerce, as much as it is an environmental savior. It’s a powerful one-two punch that’s worth consideration.
BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK
For those communities wanting more options, Gov. Scott recently proposed an effort to close what he called the rural-urban gap by suggesting an allocation of $3 million to help rural area use the ARPA funding. We applaud the thought of narrowing the urban-rural divide but question the need.
Regional planning commissions and county economic development organizations, as well as the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, have been prepping town leaders on effective ways to spend this money for the past two years. Many towns have reached out to citizens for their input, and although citizens may feel as if local governments haven’t heard them or done enough, the reality is there’s not enough money to divvy between more than a handful of items for even the largest towns.
Under the governor’s proposal, he would suggest the state help small towns allocate funds in four categories based on federal aid eligibility — housing development, community recovery, workforce development, climate change mitigation, and perhaps other projects related to “community development.”
But does that address the concerns of Goshen, population 172; Granville, population 301; Waltham, population 446; or Panton, population 646 — all towns noted by the administration to be in the neediest category of federal aid? And do we really want to open a discussion on housing developments or workplace development in towns that don’t have the staff to manage such projects, or the need to even consider it?
And should we not also be concerned with the likelihood of spending ARPA funds on “management expenses” rather than specific concrete projects we know will yield long-term benefits.
Here’s the bottom line: Let’s keep it simple by addressing the crucial needs that otherwise don’t have an obvious source of funding. In our view, that’s the best bang for these one-time dollars.
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