Use It or (Maybe) Lose It

Enfield spends ARPA cash to beat the Congressional clock

by Robert Lynch. May 25, 2023

A “mini-panic” was how this writer and Councilperson characterized Enfield’s Thursday evening mindset as he spoke at a Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG) meeting a few hours earlier.  It was perhaps an exaggeration, but this writer made his point.

“We in Enfield are sort of in a mini-panic,” this writer told TCCOG. Later, we dealt with it.

Fearful that Congressional negotiators might claw-back earlier-granted—yet still unspent—COVID relief money granted Enfield through the American Rescue Plan (ARPA), the Enfield Town Board Thursday evening quickly distributed $295,000 among eight Town- or nonprofit agency-sponsored projects, leaving little more than $23,000 of its $349,639 ARPA award remaining to be spent..

The Enfield Food Pantry, the Enfield Community Council (the ECC), and the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC) each became ARPA recipients in the process.  However, the Fire Company received less money than did the other two agencies, prompting one of the only significant disagreements during the otherwise collegial, businesslike meeting that lasted less than an hour.

Let’s not act “faster than we can think,” Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) cautioned his Town Board colleagues as they prepared to vote on the ARPA distributions. Yet act with urgency they did.

The Town Board has known the total of its federal ARPA award since 2021.  Yet its members have up until now chosen to spend the cash thoughtfully and without haste.  The Board assembled an ARPA Advisory Committee in April of last year, a panel comprised of Board members and private citizens.  The committee deliberated in private and handed forth a generalized list of recommendations.  For months the list sat on the shelf.

In the end, however, the Town Board followed its own priorities, culminating in its Thursday night vote.  The decisions came at a special meeting, hastily convened by Supervisor Stephanie Redmond after the Town’s auditor had warned the Board May 10th that the COVID relief “clawbacks” Congressional negotiators have referred to in their ongoing debt ceiling talks could endanger unspent ARPA moneys nationwide.

“It’s come out that the Republicans in control of the U.S. Congress are thinking about cutting the federal deficit in the debt ceiling negotiation talks by clawing back what the media describes as ‘COVID Relief Funds,’  Lynch asked Insero and Company auditor Duane Shoen at the May 10th meeting. “Is any of that ARPA money that may get clawed back if the Congressional Republicans succeed?”

“Absolutely yes,” Shoen responded.  “I know you’ve received the money,” the auditor continued.  “It’s still sitting in the bank…. If that money remains uncommitted, it’s definitely possible, depending on how those negotiations work out, that there may be some efforts to claw some of that back.”

Supervisor Redmond sensed surprise at Shoen’s words.  And since his warning, she’s moved quickly to seek distribution of the federal cash.  And as Councilperson Jude Lemke told the Town Board Thursday, it’s conceivable Congressional Republicans will rewrite the rules to grab even the cash Enfield chose to spend that same night.  But with a firm plan for distribution in place, commitments established by Resolution, any Republican clawback could prove more difficult, Lemke surmised.

As Washington debt ceiling negotiations edge ever closer to a supposed June first default deadline, media reports suggest that even the Biden Administration may regard unspent ARPA funds as a negotiating throw-away as it searches for a compromise with the GOP.

With Councilperson James Ricks excused due to an ongoing illness, the Enfield Town Board Thursday unanimously adopted a catch-all Resolution that distributed the $295,000 among eight projects that it had either previously committed to undertake, or decided that night to aid with lump-sum appropriations.

Among the prior projects specifically assigned ARPA funding was a $70,000 replacement of the Town Hall roof over the Clerk’s Office and a $30,000 upgrade of the Enfield Courthouse exterior.  The Board had authorized both projects at meetings in April and then proceeded to advertise bids for the projects earlier this month.

For the “Town Hall,” the Clerk’s Office, a new roof. Renovations too.

Other earlier-resolved spending packaged into Thursday’s Resolution included purchase of a Highway Department backup generator ($50,000) and acquisition of automatic defibrillators ($4,000), one for the Town Clerk’s Office, and another for the Highway Department.

Also authorized Thursday was a $31,000 set-aside to fund a variety of Town Clerk’s office renovations, including countertop windows, office furniture, and security cameras.

But what generated greater discussion was a trio of initially-equal allocations that ate up more than a third of the ARPA cash.  The Board settled on providing equal $45,000 allocations to the Enfield Food Pantry and the ECC, and a lesser-amount, $20,000, to the EVFC. 

The Resolution’s initial draft had earmarked $45,000 for the Fire Company as well.  But in part at Lemke’s suggestion, the majority reduced Fire Company funding by the $25,000 drawn from ARPA at budget time last fall to maintain continued third-year funding for protective firefighter outerwear, so-called “Turnout Gear.”

Lynch objected to the last-minute reduction, saying ARPA funding for the gear last October was meant to be treated differently; it spared the Town the inconvenience of reopening its three-year contract with the EVFC.  Lynch maintained that Fire Company leaders saw last year’s funding the same way as he did. (No EVFC leader attended Thursday’s meeting.)  Lynch voted for the final funding package only reluctantly, conceding that the Board’s majority viewed the matter differently than he did.

For the Fire Company, not so much. They subtracted out the “Turnout Gear.”

The Town’s $45,000 ARPA funding to the Food Pantry was directed toward the purchase of a $62,500 parcel of property Enfield Food Distribution seeks to buy as its new distribution site. 

The ECC’s funding, another $45,000, will underwrite three years’ worth of youth programs, including summer camp activities, trips to zoos and museums, and what its application termed “career exploration and exposure.”

“The COVID pandemic further isolated families in a rural, sparsely populated community,” the ECC’s Deborah Teeter wrote in her half-page, newly-revised application for ARPA support.  “Much attention has been given to children’s academic losses,” Teeter’s narrative continued, “but children also lost the opportunity to spend time together and build social skills.”

With the Town Board having committed more than 93 per cent of its ARPA allotment following Thursday’s vote, the lone question remaining is how will it spend what little is left.  To that point, Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy” Rollins had a suggestion.  Rollins had sought ARPA money to pave both the yard back of the Highway Garage and also the driveway leading to that building. 

The paving would have cost big bucks; over $100,000 for the yard, nearly $95,000 more for the driveway.  Rollins voiced disappointment that the Board had declined to consider the requests.   He also faulted an unnamed Board member—in fact, it was this Councilperson—who wrote in a May 17 email that “to pave a driveway and a work yard inside the fence… doesn’t address one human need in this Town.”   The member continued, “And it paves places that the public doesn’t drive anyway.”

Rollins said his Department’s employees drive and use the area, and that their needs should have been considered.

Board members took no formal action on Rollins’ request.  But they agreed to consider using the remaining $23,000 unspent after Thursday’s vote to pave a portion of the Department’s work yard.  Approaches to the Town Clerk’s Office may also be repaved.