BY ANGELO LYNN
BRANDON — A change in the way towns can spend American Rescue Plan money sparked a lengthy conversation among Brandon selectboard members Monday night and will prompt a fuller discussion at the next regular meeting on April 25. At issue is what projects, or types of projects, should be funded with the million dollars provided by the federal government to offset the pandemic-related slowdown.
Initially, the ARPA funds were restricted to capital-related projects involving water- projects and expanding broadband into the community. A recent change has allowed smaller towns with ARPA amounts of less than $10 million to spend it on whatever general fund expenses it may choose. That means the money could be used to offset regular budget expenditures, or to attend to harder-to-fund projects that have been perennially kicked down the road.
The recent change requires towns to adopt a “standard allowance approach” to ARPA spending, which allows towns to spend it on whatever projects they deem fit without itemizing spending to satisfy federal bean-counters. Town Manager David Atherton confirmed that he had checked with state and legal authorities that was the case, adding that it had at first “sounded too good to be true.”
The board approved such a motion unanimously.
That led to a discussion on which projects might use ARPA funding. Atherton made a strong case for applying much of the million toward a list of current infrastructure projects, totaling almost $2 million, that were detailed in The Reporter two weeks ago. That list includes:
• $400,000 to fix the Arnold District Box Culvert, of which $200,000 comes from VTrans, and another $200,000 seeks town or other funding;
• $594,811 toward Union Street Sidewalk and curb replacement, of which $300,000 is a grant from VTrans;
• $120,000 for phase 1 of rebuilding Town Farm Road for the first 3/10ths of mile in front of the Neshobe Golf Course, of which 100% is town-funded;
• $160,000 for a new salt shed, of which 100% is town-funded;
• $292,000 to address the New England Woodcraft stormwater problems, of which 100% is funded by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources; and
• $400,000 to replace the Newton Road Pump station, of which $360,000 was already dedicated to ARPA funding, with $40,000 not yet funded.
Of the total project costs above, total outside funding is $1,152,000, leaving $814,811 for the town to fund.
Atherton noted that the town was in good financial shape, in terms of long-term infrastructure projects to be completed, and that if these projects were paid for with ARPA money the town would be “ahead of the game going forward.”
“Let’s please use ARPA money for these projects because they are things we have to do, and it’s money for free… It’s like paying down your credit card so you don’t have to borrow money and pay interest on it,” Atherton said, “and these projects, on the whole, benefit everyone.”
But others had additional ideas.
Jim Emerson of the Brandon Energy Committee had spoken earlier to be on the next meeting’s agenda so the Energy Committee could propose projects to be financed with those same ARPA funds, adding that once-in-a-lifetime projects could be built that would generate recurring revenue for the town.
Town Recreation and Economic Development Director Bill Moore added that there were a few recreation projects, including a tennis court, that the town needed. Another suggestion was looking into fixing the roof at the Brandon Town Hall.
In the end, Board Chair Seth Hopkins, moved to take up the discussion more fully at the April 25 meeting, which would allow the board and others to gather more information and make more concrete proposals at that time.
“I think the smartest thing to do is to take a very comprehensive look at all the projects that we need to fund, and other options, and see what it looks like,” Hopkins said, adding then the board could start to allocate the ARPA money. Projects using ARPA money have to be designated by the end of 2024, and the money needs to be spent by the end of 2026.
The board also considered a proposal from Police Chief David Kachajian to buy another police cruiser. He said of the six vehicles the police department currently has, one of the 2009 Chargers is no longer working, and the crew is currently at six officers with two more officers currently in training at the police academy and due to join the department this late summer.
Kachajian said he had contacted several auto dealers, all of whom reported difficulty in getting new cars because of tight supply and high demand, but that G. Stone Motors in Middlebury could guarantee a Ford Explorer cruiser by this coming August at a price of $45,242, with a ‘ready for the road” package. Two other bids from dealers further away (McGee Ford and MHQ, also a Ford dealer) were slightly lower ($42,580 and $43,082, respectively) but did not include “the lighting or ready for the road package,” items that would add a couple thousand dollars. Furthermore, Kachajian said, those dealers could not provide a vehicle until well into 2023.
After going over the bids, selectboard member Tim Guiles asked about the possibility of buying an electric patrol cruiser, which led to a lengthy discussion on those pros and cons.
At the end of the discussion, Atherton recommended the town’s Energy Committee review the pros and cons of purchasing an electric cruiser, find suitable bids and report back to the selectboard at its April 25 meeting.
In other news, the selectboard:
• passed along praise of the town’s highway department for a job well done this past winter and in cleaning up the roads this spring. That praise came from former selectboard member Doug Bailey, who noted the crew had done “a great job” this winter and should be congratulated.
• went into an executive session and authorized Hopkins to write a letter to the town’s Trustees of Public Funds saying the selectboard found no conflict of interest would arise from the trustees considering a grant to the Brandon library for a project one of the trustees (who is recused) is involved with. In another action, the board postponed a regular review of town manager Dave Atherton to next meeting when selectman Tracy Wyman could also be present.