The city’s ARPA Community Advisory Committee is closing in on its goal of making final recommendations to the City Council on the spending priorities for $15 million in federal Covid relief funds.
The committee held a public input forum on spending priorities last week, and this week, the City Council heard about the current spending priorities being recommended by the committee.
“At the end of the day, Chelsea got over $40 million in American Rescue Plan Act money,” said City Manager Thomas Ambrosino. “It was really a once in a lifetime infusion of federal assistance to the city.”
About $25 million of that money will be used to help the municipal government restore money that was lost due to the Covid pandemic. Ambrosino said most of that chunk of money will be earmarked for capital improvement projects in the city. The people of Chelsea are helping the city determine how best to spend the remaining $15 million through the advisory committee.
Over the past six to seven months, the committee has prioritized spending initiatives in six different categories, including small business, workforce development, housing, food security, mental and behavioral health, and environmental health.
The input from last week’s community meeting and from the City Council will be considered as the advisory committee drafts its final recommendations, according to Mo Barbosa, a committee facilitator from Boston-based Health Resources in Action.
Several hundred people attended last week’s public forum, and the input from the attendees is still being tabulated, Barbosa said.
“We are in the homestretch and we are going to be reviewing the results from the public meeting and any of the comments (from the council) and putting them into a final prioritization of the strategies,” said Barbosa.
While the advisory committee can make recommendations on the spending strategies, the final say on how the money is spent within those frameworks will come down to the City Council and administration.
During Monday night’s subcommittee on conference meeting, the council made it through about half of the recommended spending priorities. The committee is expected to meet next week to take up the remaining categories.
In the category of small business, the advisory group has identified creating a streamlined process to help small businesses navigate red tape as the top priority.
That could be accomplished by a dedicated staff member in City Hall, or through several existing staff members dedicating time to issues of small business development, according to Alexander Train, the city’s housing and economic development director.
“Participants in our focus groups are looking for a central hub where small business owners and entrepreneurs can come to City Hall to receive that type of business advice, technical assistance, and ongoing support,” said Train.
Other high priorities for the business category include supporting at-home daycares as small businesses and providing access to programs and support, and providing direct cash infusions to small businesses. Train said the cash infusions could be used for rent, operating costs, payroll, inventory, or other costs for struggling businesses.
District 1 Councillor Todd Taylor asked how detailed the data were concerning the number of struggling businesses in the city, and how they could benefit from the ARPA funds.
“I think you need to do some of that homework in order to really try to get that target of how much goes where,” said Taylor. “You’re kind of just throwing it out there. I don’t mean to be a stickler, but it just seems to me that if we are going to spend millions of dollars trying to help people, we really should try to invest some of that money … to find out where we are at and what needs to be done and who needs to be helped.”
Train said the advisory committee has analyzed state and federal data on business closures, including closures by business sectors and jobs lost by business closure. However, he said the amount of help needed by businesses is not necessarily reported in the same way and can be harder to measure.
In the category of workforce development, some of the priorities noted by the advisory committee include increasing workforce development opportunities for those most in need, such as the undocumented and students, and providing subsidized training in critical areas.
In the housing category, top priorities include increasing equitable housing opportunities based on resident need and increasing construction of affordable and mixed-income housing.