State officials tour NEK to discuss unspent ARPA funding

Hundreds of millions in federal pandemic recovery money is on the way to improve communities around Vermont.
Published: Nov. 17, 2022 at 4:57 PM EST
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NEWPORT, Vt. (WCAX) - Hundreds of millions in federal pandemic recovery money is on the way to improve communities around Vermont. The $180 million in American Rescue Plan money was doled out on a per capita basis for projects including water, sewer, and broadband. But some rural towns, including in the Northeast Kingdom, are having trouble spending the cash.

Vermont officials and local leaders gathered in Newport Thursday to flesh out details on how to spend a once-in-a-lifetime investment. But come communities are having a hard time spending all the cash.

“Now that we’re a little bit into it, it’s a time to reflect and adjust and make sure we are doing this work in a way that leaves no community behind,” said Rep. Katherine Sims, D-Craftsbury.

But some are getting left behind and some of that money could be left on the table. Larry labor is one of three members on the Morgan Selectboard, a town of 628. They received $200,000 to re-develop their local school which is riddled with water and septic issues. But Labor says they have a problem. “In industry, we call it the clerk of the works,” he said. He says small towns like his lack the staff to fill out the applications and administer the grants. The Vermont League of Cities and Towns and regional planning commissions have provided some technical support. “They are great advisor organizations but they’re not hands-on sites when something’s being done,” Labor said.

Vt. state leaders met with NEK officials in Newport Thursday to help facilitate spending of...
Vt. state leaders met with NEK officials in Newport Thursday to help facilitate spending of ARPA funding.(WCAX)

Vermont towns are all over the map in where they are in spending the federal cash. Some are already spending but others in more rural areas are at square one. Most local ARPA money in the NEK has gone unspent. “We’re failing to connect in certain areas,” said Douglas Farnham with the Agency of Administration. He says the plan Thursday was to help connect with local officials and get them the assistance they need. “We want to see more projects happening and that takes communication with the local leaders and collaboration.” And the clock is ticking. The federal money must be spent by 2026 and anything leftover must be returned.

A new Legislative session kicks off in two months and lawmakers like Rep. Sims want to jumpstart the session with investments to help towns staff up. “I’d love to see more targeted small grants to build that project management capacity in our towns, to move projects forward that will be transformational for our communities,” Sims said.

Since the cash is on a per capita basis, officials say smaller towns aren’t getting as much. But Farnham says many have been very thoughtful to get the biggest bang for their buck. “I think that’s indicative of how responsible Vermonters are with money, whether that’s state or federal money,” he said.

The state has put over a billion dollars into over 100 ARPA programs that all towns can access, and they are hoping that with the right tools, they can also make lasting impacts in Vermont’s smaller communities.

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