NORTHBOROUGH – Elected officials and members of the general public will have a chance to weigh in later this month as Northborough decides how to spend the roughly $4.5 million it is set to receive in American Rescue Plan Act funding.
The town is planning a public meeting to be held on April 14 at 6 p.m. This comes after Town Administrator John Coderre presented a list of proposed projects to the selectmen on March 14 and after community members held a subsequent public forum to discuss ideas for the ARPA funds.
“Before we go any further, I think that it’s a good idea for the various boards to meet and to allow public comment so that we can hear what needs to be heard before we go any further with the decision making,” said Selectman Leslie Rutan during the selectmen’s March 28 meeting.
This April 14 planned meeting will include that option for public comment. It will also give the town a chance to clarify any misinformation in the community, Rutan added.
ARPA passed in March of last year as a stimulus package aimed at supporting the nation’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
It included allocations for municipal governments, sending that money on a slow journey toward town and city coffers across the country.
Northborough now has until Dec. 31, 2024, to obligate its ARPA funding. It then has until Dec. 31, 2026 to spend it.
In line with that, Coderre presented a list of proposed 10 ARPA projects during the March 14 meeting.
“A good chunk of it is really dealing with the cuts, reductions and maneuvers with the capital and the [other post-employment benefits] trust fund and some of the programming that was reduced during the pandemic,” Coderre said. “So, those are the things that have been prioritized to be restored.”
Ultimately, the selectmen voted to move forward with releasing funds in the amount of $38,000 for repairs for the Proctor Elementary School drains. Selectmen also allocated $100,000 for a community wellness initiative called BeWellNorthborough.
The board released funding for two town projects, at Assabet Park and Ellsworth McAfee Park, that were impacted by supply chain price hikes on needed materials. The town is specifically requesting $20,000 to replace fencing at Assabet Park as part of the playground renovation.
It is, meanwhile, requesting $18,000 for benches and gates for a set of pickleball courts at Ellsworth McAfee Park that Town Meeting voters approved last year.
Both projects have additionally Community Preservation Act funding requests on this year’s Annual Town Meeting, though those requests will be removed if ARPA funding is approved for the projects, Coderre said.
ARPA funds were also released for an affordable housing project.
Northborough Housing Authority, Affordable Housing Corporation and the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development is proposing to develop eight senior rental apartments in a two-story building at 26 Village Drive. The town is requesting to use $100,000 in ARPA funds to supplement $1.3 million in Community Preservation Act funding that it hopes will be approved at Town Meeting.
In the meantime, proposed projects that remain unfunded include a request to buy a new fire engine, work to install a tight tank system at the town’s highway garage, sidewalk repairs, OPEB contributions and maintenance of a COVID-19 expense reserve.
Residents share thoughts
Some residents expressed concerns about the level of public engagement in this process prior to Coderre’s presentation at the March 14 selectmen’s meeting. Residents also pitched potential uses for the funds.
“There has never been a public hearing or really any selectmen deliberation about what they want to see for that,” said resident Laura Ziton.
Their concerns were later echoed by some of the selectmen.
“There have been so many ideas that haven’t been discussed because it’s only been one person,” Selectman Kristen Wixted added following Coderre’s presentation. “John, you’re great at budgets, but you’re doing this all by yourself, and everyone’s point was [that] other towns have invited public input.”
Coderre said that he worked with the town’s Financial Planning, Appropriations and Master Plan Implementation committees to develop the prioritizations he presented. Town departments had been involved, too, he said.
He added that the final ARPA rules governing how towns can spend their allocations weren’t released until January.
“[So,] a lot of work and running around that other towns did was completely negated by the fact that the rules weren’t put together yet,” Coderre said.
He also said that it was important that staff frame these issues for the selectmen.
“Just asking people what they want in a vacuum isn’t leadership,” Coderre said. “Leadership is researching and framing these up to a point where then you can take some input.”
Perreault, who previously served on the Finance Planning Committee, recalled previous practices leading up to the Great Recession in 2008, which led to the town revising its financial policies in ways that then helped Northborough get through the pandemic over the past two years.
“I’ve been listening tonight to people talk about this ARPA money as [a] windfall or gift or whatever,” Perreault said. “It’s not. It’s not any of that. It’s mitigation. It’s mitigation for the impacts we have had or for the backlog that we have for these kind of projects.”
Community organizers assembled a forum at Trinity Church on potential uses of the ARPA funds a week after Coderre’s presentation.
Moderated by John Morse, residents brainstormed potential needs, which were bundled under focused categories.
Ideas ranged from the formation of a small business grant program to the construction of a teen center.
Residents were then asked to place a sticky note next to the categories they wanted to prioritize.
“We feel it’s critical that the community be involved in these conversations,” said organizer Marile Borden.