Plan to spend federal COVID relief funds sparks backlash in Woonsocket

Blackstone Valley

WOONSOCKET (WPRI) — Woonsocket city councilors voted in favor of a plan to spend American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding on items like an ice skating rink and chairs for the council chambers.

The plan is prompting backlash from residents in a city where they have indicated their biggest priority was affordable housing.

Woonsocket is getting a total of roughly $36 million from the ARPA. The proposal, unanimously approved by councilors Monday night, lays out how the first $14 million would be spent.

The proposal includes $3.5 million for street paving and sidewalk repairs, $4 million for water meter replacement, and bonuses of between $750 and $1,000 for hundreds of workers deemed essential during the pandemic.

But it also allocates funding for other items, like $250,000 for an ice skating rink with synthetic ice, $53,000 for ergonomic chairs in the city council chambers, $665,000 for LED streetlights, $70,000 for ornamental streetlight replacement, and more than $540,000 to repair and repaint fire hydrants in the city.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Christa Thomas-Sowers, who does outreach work in the city. “We have an obligation to the people in this city, they are struggling, they are suffering.”

Many of the people who spoke at Monday night’s council meeting want to see a portion of the city’s share of federal coronavirus relief funding go towards affordable housing and helping the city’s homeless, something not included in the proposal.

“What would you do if that was you, where would you turn? Because the city you’re living in is turning its back on you,” said another speaker during the public comment portion of the meeting.

“I think that I’m just curious as to how federal rescue funds to help people, how is an ice skating rink helping people?” questioned one of the speakers, who is a high school student in the city. “How are chairs helping people? Are the chairs to make sure you guys sit more comfortably while people are sleeping in the streets, uncomfortable, freezing?”

Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt spoke directly to the student later in the meeting, noting that the student suggested an ice skating rink as a program to help the city’s youth.

“You shared with me the fact that there was nothing for the children in this city to do. There was no ice skating rink, no Roller Kingdom. Those are your words,” Mayor Baldelli-Hunt said to the student during the meeting. “So you can get up there and criticize me and the rest of this administration, to try to fault us for funding an ice skating rink. That rink is getting funded, and those children will use it.”

Councilors and Baldelli-Hunt noted that the proposal only references the first sum of ARPA money and that more funding would be coming.

“This is one small piece of a very big pie,” said city councilor David Soucy. “Let’s not give up hope that there’s certainly a lot more time, a lot more opportunities, to see what we wanna get done.”

Baldelli-Hunt also said the city is getting additional funding from the state to go towards education and homeless organizations.

“Everything that we are allocating funds to has been researched, every expense has been researched to be certain that they are allowable expenses,” Baldelli-Hunt said.

The council voted unanimously in favor of the spending plan, marking the first passage of the ordinance. It has to be voted on a second time before it would take effect.

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