By Jarret Liotta
WESTPORT — Disagreement still exists among town officials on how to spend $8.4 million in federal grant money, but they’ve started spending it anyway.
In three separate allocations, the Representative Town Meeting approved $500,000 in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) Grant Income funds late Monday night and into early Tuesday morning, including $250,000 for reimbursement to the town’s General Fund for COVID-related expenses, $150,000 for four bus shelters along the Post Road, and $100,000 for tree trimming and removal.
Looking for the Big Picture
While these items had been recommended by the Board of Finance, some RTM members felt they wanted to know an entire rundown of what was being planned for the $8.4-million COVID-related “relief” funds, which are being given to the town in two $4.2-million installments over the next four years.
“That’s a lot of money and I’d like to see how it’s going to be spent before I do any voting on it,” said Dick Lowenstein, RTM District 5, who voted against all three items.
First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker said plans for the spending were in flux and that, while a living document outlining the plans at this point has been assembled, the intention was to identify and, ideally, approve items piecemeal.
RTM members in general were split, however, on what constituted proper use of the funds, as well as the urgency in saying Yes to these appropriations before more details emerged from the RTM’s Long-Range Planning Committee, which is involved in determining a list of priorities for the money.
The $100,000 allotted for additional and more intensive tree trimming along Beachside Avenue, Sylvan Road, and Cross Highway was the item passed by the narrowest margin, 18-16.
“That’s as close a vote as we’ve had in a long time,” said the RTM’s new Moderator Jeff Wieser.
“A Total Lack of Oversight”
While everyone was in general agreement that the trimming work — aimed at curtailing storm-related power outages — was a worthwhile expense, the immediacy of the request, along with a belief by some that the funding should come through regular maintenance funds instead of the ARPA grant, brought disagreement.
Louis Mall, RTM District 2, pointed out that a closer look was needed regarding $1.8 million that has already been spent since 2015 on tree maintenance by the town.
“There’s been a total lack of transparency here and a total lack of oversight,” he said, calling it an embarrassment.
“We need to spend more time to focus on who is doing what,” he said, noting that $140,000 was currently unspent in this year’s tree maintenance budget anyway.
Tree Warden Bruce Lindsay has announced that he will be stepping down from his post as of Jan. 1, with his current assistant apparently taking over the position for at least an interim period, according to Peter Ratkiewich, director of the Department of Public Works.
Infrastructure vs. Maintenance
Matthew Mandell, RTM District 1, who likewise voted against the tree trimming allocation, said the ARPA grant was earmarked for COVID-related expenses or building infrastructure.
“The bus shelters are infrastructure,” he said, joining others in the 33-to-2 vote in favor of that $150,000 expense, which only had Lowenstein and Peter Gold, RTM District 5, voting against.
He told Ratkiewich that he would support him coming back and asking for a separate $100,000 appropriation for the trimming as part of regular town maintenance, but said he preferred to see the ARPA money going toward something “special.”
“This is not special … I’d rather spend $100,000 on putting solar panels on a school,” he said.
Ratkiewich pointed out that there was no guarantee the RTM would approve a new allocation in the coming months if it was denied here.
Gary Conrad, finance director, pushed back at Gold when he questioned the need to put $250,000 into the town’s General Fund to cover expenses that he said were going to be covered anyway — primarily COVID-testing costs for employees.
Conrad said they were expending $6,000 weekly for the tests, and that $70,000 had already been spent beyond what was previously budgeted.
Opposed to the money landing in the General Fund, Gold said, “The other $180,000 is going to be spent on postage stamps and Post-It notes.”
“I have to object to that,” Conrad interrupted, citing the importance of the health need in relation to the expenses, calling them “critical to the town.”
“I don’t want to get into an argument with anybody (but) I really do take some exception to that,” he said.
Asked directly, however, Conrad didn’t have a clear answer as to why the ARPA money had to go into the General Fund right away, indicating instead it related to traditional practice under the previous administration, which he said did things a certain way.
The RTM approved this funding request 22-11, with some people who voted against the tree trimming — including Mall and Mandell — stating it was a more-proper use of ARPA funds.
Jack Klinge, RTM District 7 and chair of the Long-Range Planning Committee, however, voted against this item, despite supporting the first two.
“There’s no urgency to fund the reserve account in our budget now, tonight,” he said.
“Look at all the Options”
“I would much rather you wait and look at all the options, weigh them, prioritize them … The last dollar we spend should be to put money back into the funds,” he said.
Klinge said his committee would be exploring more details of funding ideas for the ARPA grant, which are many, according to officials.
“Every day my email is filled with people who have ideas of how to spend the ARPA money,” Tooker said.
Klinge said spending for the first half of the grant must get underway by Dec. 31, 2024, while the second $4.2 million doesn’t need to be spent before Dec. 31, 2026.