PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Billions of dollars are flowing into Southern New England under the American Rescue Plan Act, a relief measure approved by Congress in March that aims to help the country recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
Much of the focus has been on how state governments will spend their allocations under the law, including $1.1 billion going to the state of Rhode Island with few strings attached. But there is also a considerable amount of money heading straight to municipalities and school districts.
That includes roughly $534 million being directed to the largest cities in Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts: Providence, New Bedford, Fall River, Cranston, Warwick, Pawtucket, Taunton, East Providence, Attleboro and Woonsocket.
Communities have until the end of 2024 to allocate the federal money and until the end of 2026 to actually spend it. While many decisions remain to be made, plans are already starting to take shape in some places.
Providence quickly put more than $42 million toward a variety of uses, including a new welcome center at Roger Williams Park that’s already under construction, and a small business relief program that has yet to get off the ground. Warwick is using $7 million in part to jump-start the long-delayed Bayside sewer project. East Providence and Woonsocket are spending roughly a half-million dollars each repairing a seawall and fire hydrants, respectively. Other places have yet to allocate a dime.
Target 12 surveyed the cities to find out how much money each one is getting, how much they’ve spent so far, and what their plans are for allocating the rest. Here’s what they reported back.
(The numbers below represent each city’s allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act’s Local Fiscal Recovery Fund; additional ARPA funding could be provided from other programs in the law. Also, the four Massachusetts cities will additionally share in $109 million being granted to the Bristol County Commissioners’ Office; in Rhode Island, the county money went straight to individual municipalities.)
What’s been funded so far? Providence is getting the most American Rescue Plan Act money among the cities — which is no surprise since it has by far the most residents.
Mayor Jorge Elorza and City Council leaders have already allocated the largest amount of ARPA dollars among the cities — $42.8 million — although Warwick has spent more as a percentage of its total allocation. They quickly approved that spending in June despite complaints about the lack of a public hearing on the choices, arguing time was of the essence.
Nearly half the money Providence has spent so far — $19.5 million — went to plug a hole in the 2021-22 budget attributed to revenue losses caused by the pandemic, with another $1.2 million designated to ARPA administrative expenditures.
Other ARPA allocations so far in Providence include $4 million for a new welcome center at Roger Williams Park; $3 million for street sweeping and sewer repairs; $2.6 million to combat violence; $2 million for youth-related projects; $1.7 million for summer programs; nearly $1 million for nonprofits, including $300,000 for WaterFire; and $600,000 for libraries.
The city also said $7 million would be used to provide small businesses with individual relief checks of $2,500, an expenditure that was deemed urgent when it passed the City Council in July. But Target 12 has learned no stipends have gone out yet, because the application process still hasn’t been finalized. “We expect to share a process with business owners soon,” a spokesperson said.
What happens next? Providence established a COVID-19 Recovery and Resiliency Task Force, which has been holding weekly public meetings and seeking community input, including through an online survey. With over $120 million left to spend, the task force is expected to issue recommendations later this month. Mayor Elorza and the City Council will make the final decisions.
More information is available at PVDrescueplan.com.
What’s been funded so far? Nothing — New Bedford hasn’t allocated any of its $64 million yet.
“It’s a once-in-a-multi-generation opportunity,” New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said last month on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers. “New Bedford hasn’t gotten federal funds of this magnitude, in real terms, since at least the ’60s, if not the Great Depression.”
The mayor said he wants to spend the money on “one-time items,” rather than new permanent programs that would eventually need city revenue once federal funds run out. He is also looking for ways to leverage other state and private funds. He cited open space, cultural facilities, law enforcement, or “big business opportunities” as potential uses of the money.
What happens next? The mayor’s office told Target 12 the city is “conducting a public process for input and feedback,” and plans to provide the City Council “with a general outline for ARPA spending after the public process is complete.”
However, some members of the City Council are questioning whether the mayor is seeking to exert too much control over how ARPA money is allocated. Yet Mitchell said on Newsmakers he expects there to be “pretty strong agreement” between his office and the council in the end.
What’s been funded so far? Fall River has touched less than 1% of its $69 million so far. The only appropriation to date has been $260,000 for Operation Compass, which Mayor Paul Coogan’s office said “provides funding for police overtime, the purchasing of new surveillance equipment and other means to improve public safety.”
What happens next? Fall River created an American Rescue Plan Advisory Panel that is supposed to make recommendations on how the rest of the money should be used, and two public meetings were held over the summer to solicit input from residents.
Like in New Bedford, the mayor and the City Council have been at odds over who has final authority to decide how ARPA funds get spent. A spokesperson for Mayor Coogan told Target 12, “there is no timeline for when the city expects to determine the usage of the remaining ARPA funds.”
What’s been funded so far? So far Cranston has used about one-fifth of its $42.6 million American Rescue Plan allocation. The bulk of its spending — $6.2 million — was used to balance the city budget and make up for pandemic-related revenue losses. An additional $1.7 million “has been appropriated to public safety expenses,” according to Mayor Ken Hopkins’ office.
What happens next? Stay tuned. “Discussions continue with the R.I. Pandemic Recovery Office, the R.I. League of Cities and Towns, along with municipal input to determine the proper usage of the funds,” said a spokesperson for the mayor’s office.
What’s been funded so far? Warwick has allocated more of its American Rescue Plan money than any other local city, with a little more than half already designated for use.
Like Providence and Cranston, Warwick used a significant amount to cover revenue losses attributed to the pandemic and balance the city budget; in Warwick’s case, $10.6 million was used that way.
Mayor Frank Picozzi told Target 12 he is not concerned about Warwick having a budget hole once the federal funding dries up, saying the lost revenue was largely attributable to the collapse in traffic at T.F. Green Airport as well as the accompanying losses at hotels and other nearby businesses.
“We’ve used it for actual revenue losses,” Picozzi said, adding, “we didn’t even take all we could in last year’s budget.”
In addition, Warwick has allocated $10 million to infrastructure projects. Of that amount, $7 million is going toward sewer projects, including the long-delayed Bayside project. Picozzi said the availability of Rescue Plan funding slashed the sewer tie-up assessment for individual homeowners by roughly half, from as much as $35,000 to $16,900.
“It’s helping enormously,” he said. “It’s money we’re not going to have to take out of our future budgets, so it’s going to keep taxes down in that way.”
The other $3 million will go toward water infrastructure projects, including the aging tanks on Bald Hill Road that service both the city and the Kent County Water Authority. A major failure of the infrastructure there could cut off water for a significant portion of the city and affect motorists taking nearby I-95 and Route 37.
What happens next? With $18.2 million in unused Rescue Plan funds, Warwick leaders expect to tackle how to spend the remaining money during the annual budget process early next year. Mayor Picozzi said he expects the city to again prioritize infrastructure projects, including more water upgrades.
What’s been funded so far? Nothing — Pawtucket is the only one of the Rhode Island cities that has yet to use any of its American Rescue Plan funding so far.
Mayor Don Grebien’s spokesperson, Emily Rizzo, said Pawtucket is still waiting for more guidance from the federal government about allowable uses of the money under the law.
“We are looking at options related to infrastructure, affordable housing, and other opportunities, but nothing has been specifically allocated for at this time or spent,” she said.
What happens next? City officials have already conducted a survey of Pawtucket residents to find out their priorities for spending the many, and they plan to do more outreach in the coming months. But there is no timeline yet for when decisions will be made.
What’s been funded so far? Taunton has spent just 2% of its nearly $21 million American Rescue Plan allocation. The city used the money to award two grants: $258,335 to T.R.U.E. Diversity for a summer program to help disadvantaged young people, and $166,000 to the Boys and Girls Club of Metro South for on-site social workers to provide mental-health support to young residents at various sites.
“Providing educational assistance, social and emotional learning, and expanding access to mental health services for our children is a key component in mitigating the negative impact of COVID-19 in the City of Taunton,” said Radka Barter, deputy chief of staff in the mayor’s office. “Mayor O’Connell is committed to making our youth a top priority in the use of ARPA funds in our city.”
What happens next? Mayor O’Connell has met with department heads to discuss priorities for Taunton’s ARPA funds, and hosted a community meeting on Sept. 22 to gather feedback from residents, businesses and local groups. A survey has also been conducted, and residents have been urged to email their ideas to the address COVID19INFO@taunton-ma.gov.
“Mayor O’Connell and her administration will take all of this information under advisement and craft a plan for the use of ARPA funds which meets federal spending and reporting guidelines,” Barter said.
What’s been funded so far? East Providence has allocated $1.6 million in American Rescue Plan funds so far, only a small portion of the roughly $27 million the city will receive.
Mayor Bob DaSilva’s office said the largest portion of that spending — just under $1 million — paid to rehire government workers “up to the government’s level of pre-pandemic employment.” Another $477,215 went toward engineering and repairs for the crumbling seawall at Rose Larisa Park along Narragansett Bay. Beyond that, $158,900 went to Runnins River flood prevention efforts, and $16,500 paid for IT upgrades.
What happens next? Mayor DaSilva’s office said city leaders are waiting to see how the federal and state governments decide to disburse their own American Rescue Plan funds before making additional plans to spend the money, “as the city does not wish to duplicate efforts/plans on any infrastructure projects.”
What’s been funded so far? Nothing — Attleboro, like New Bedford and Fall River, hasn’t touched any of its $9.6 million in American Rescue Plan funds so far.
“We have three years to commit the funds and we are being very thoughtful about how spend it,” Mayor Paul Heroux told Target 12. He said the city is currently developing a request for proposals (RFP) “for community not-for-profits in order to administer programs directed towards rent/mortgage assistance and other economic assistances.”
What happens next? There is no specific timeline for when the city expects to allocate its Rescue Plan funds, but Heroux said he expects a majority of the money “will likely be spent on water and wastewater infrastructure.”
“The state recently changed its PFAS standard to be one of the most stringent in the country,” the mayor said, referring to a group of potentially harmful chemicals. “Attleboro and about 71 other communities are now not in compliance with the new state standard, so that is one of my top priorities.”
Other “big-ticket items” Heroux said he is considering: several million dollars for a municipal broadband network; roughly $500,000 each for mortgage assistance and small business relief; HVAC upgrades for police, fire, recreation and the Council on Aging; and improvements to the fire department’s sleeping quarters on Union Street.
What’s been funded so far? Woonsocket is getting the second-most American Rescue Plan funding among the cities surveyed. The city is getting $842 per capita, second-only to Providence ($871).
Woonsocket also has one of the most interesting spending items so far among them: fire hydrants. The city has budgeted $541,000 in American Rescue Plan funds to rehabilitate the city’s roughly 2,000 hydrants.
Woonsocket has also budgeted $86,400 for an ARPA administrator and $1,271 to buy a software tool to survey residents about how the money should be spent.
What happens next? There is no specific timeline yet in Woonsocket for allocating its over $35 million in remaining Rescue Plan funds.
After conducting a survey to gather input, Woonsocket leaders say they are now holding assessment meetings “to determine potential ARPA-funded programs that best accommodate city residents and businesses.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram
Steph Machado and Eli Sherman contributed to this report.