STONINGTON — With the town expected to receive an estimated $5 million over two payments as part of the American Rescue Plan, officials are eyeing uses for the money that could include the establishment of an affordable housing assistance fund for a loan program and several capital improvements cut from the previous fiscal year’s budget as a result of the pandemic.
Members of the town’s Board of Finance last week began preliminary discussions regarding a process to determine the best investment for the designated federal rescue funds, the beginning of a process that officials said would be treated similar to the town’s typical annual budget process.
First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough said the purpose of using the multi-step format is necessary to help keep the public informed and get residents involved in sharing ideas and needs, as well as maintaining transparency.
“I think for us, it’s better to lean in favor of being transparent and giving the taxpayers a say in how we move forward,” Chesebrough said during the board’s meeting last week. “I mean, it’s not a $73 million budget, but it is $5 million and I think that’s something where we need to be clear in how we are using it.”
The board is expected to use an expedited, but thorough, process that will first include adjustments by the Board of Selectmen before Chesebrough goes before the Board of Finance on Aug. 4 to seek feedback and discussion from members at their meeting the following week. Members of the Board of Selectmen would then finalize a recommendation that would be formally presented to finance members on Sept. 1 with a tentative town hearing to take place on Sept. 15.
Chesebrough suggested then sending the proposed spending to a town meeting. Selectwoman June Strunk agreed with the importance of transparency and expanding discussions to include the Board of Finance, but cautioned against holding a full town meeting on the rescue funds and noted that under the charter, the board is not required to seek approval from residents for use of this money.
“I can see getting the Board of Finance involved, but perhaps it would not be best to go through whole public hearing or town meeting, especially as quickly as the process will need to move,” Strunk said. “We will need to make sure it is well publicized that this is the money we got and take a night to explain to the public why these projects were chosen, not others.”
In a phone conversation, Chesebrough cautioned that any potential uses of the money that came up in discussion are preliminary and that no final decisions have been made. In many cases, she said formal proposals are still being developed and would be reviewed in accordance with the town’s charter and the agreed-upon process before funding is approved.
Chesebrough said the U.S. Department of Treasury still has not sent out final guidance, and thanked town staff and Stonington Finance Director James Sullivan, who was present for the board’s discussion, for their work in coordinating with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, National League of Cities and others to begin determining the best ways for communities to use the funding.
A portion of the money, $1.9 million, can be used to offset losses for items such as projects removed from the 2020-21 fiscal budget as a result of the pandemic. Use of the money is limited, Chesebrough cautioned, and she urged fellow elected officials to consider using the money on projects that need to be done, such as repairs to the town’s salt dome used by Public Works and money, at least $73,000, for improvements to cybersecurity required in order for the town to maintain insurance.
“Anything infrastructure outside water, sewer and broadband is not covered in this, with the caveat that the $1.9 million cut out of the budget due to COVID can be spent on general government,” she said. “But there are some specific requirements there, too.”
One concept that garnered discussion was possible use of funds to develop an affordable housing assistance fund, a specific fund that would be used to help facilitate a loan program designed to help homeowners maintain their properties and retain seniors and others who might otherwise be unable to afford to continue to live in the community.
The program is part of an ongoing town effort to better address housing needs in Stonington, Mystic and Pawcatuck, and would be designed to incentivize property maintenance while simultaneously allowing the town a chance to add real, usable affordable housing in town.
“This is a way to hopefully help seniors and others with less income to stay in the community, to be able to stay in their homes and clean it up,” Chesebrough said. “It’s also a way to clean up some of the homes in our community and to help the town to get closer to that 10% threshold for affordable housing.”
The proposed spending plan also looked to address various non-government needs, including aiding the hardest-hit industries such as tourism and hospitality, arts and entertainment and resources to aid with mental health assistance.
Money provided in these specific areas would be done to aid businesses both short- and long-term, and could include stipulated payments to the Mystic or Ocean Community chambers of commerce, as well as for public services including the Stonington Free Library, Mystic & Noank Library and Westerly Library, all which service town residents. Funding is also expected to be designated for the town’s ambulance groups, including Stonington Ambulance, Mystic River Ambulance and the Westerly Ambulance Corps.
Chesebrough said although the money provided to certain agencies, including Westerly Ambulance, Westerly Library and the Ocean Community Chamber, would directly benefit the town, the community is still waiting on guidance regarding whether money could be allocated to organizations based across state lines.
“There’s still a lot of discussions to be had before anything is finalized,” Chesebrough said.