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With $32 Million In Federal Relief Funds, Pittsfield Has A Lot To Decide

A stone building with a colonnade.
Josh Landes
The city hall of Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts will receive over $32 million in federal relief funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. The $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill was signed in March to hasten the country’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying recession. With half of the money in hand and the rest hitting city coffers next May, Mayor Linda Tyer has described it as a once in a lifetime windfall for the community. WAMC asked the mayor how she plans to spend the money, and why the voices of city residents will inform the final disbursements.

TYER: Yes, $32 million is certainly a significant sum of money. And so within the federal program, there are some very specific uses for that money. So the categories are: responding to the public health emergency or its negative economic impact. And next category is premium pay. Another category is revenue loss to communities. And the fourth category is investments in infrastructure.

WAMC: Now, you must be getting pitched by all manner of groups on how to use this money. How do you plan on working through the various community groups and stakeholders to arrive at ways to spend that sum?

That's a great question. And first, we started, you know, by undertaking a study of, you know, the really remarkable opportunity this presents to us- But what are all of the regulations and requirements attached to this once in a lifetime fund? So we've done some internal conversations, and our next step will be to convene sessions with various stakeholders who might be eligible for these funds, we will also conduct a community survey. And then my hope is to convene a mayor's advisory council to sort of help narrow the focus so that when we are ready to expand these funds, we're doing it in the most meaningful way.

At a recent city council meeting, you talked about envisioning that advisory council to be around seven to nine members. I know that Ward Five’s Patrick Kavey volunteered to represent the council on the committee. Has anyone else come forward to populate that list?

We have had some interest in people asking to be considered for the advisory council. And one of the areas of concern is that we want to make sure that if there is an organization that we think might be eligible for funding, is it in the best interest of that organization? Or is it a conflict for a person from that organization to serve on the advisory council? So we're working through some of those details right now.

Do you have an example of what might discount someone from being a participating member along those lines?

Yeah. So for example, if we wanted to make some additional investments in the Brien Center, for example, to help us address the public health emergency around substance use disorders- If the Brien Center is eligible to receive some of the funds to enhance their programs, would it be inappropriate to have a Brien Center person serving on my advisory council?

Now, in the past, you've talked about your own interests and how that money might be spent- What's on your list at this point, as it becomes more of a material opportunity?

Right. So what was interesting is, in this this whole American Rescue Plan, the evolution of the American Rescue Plan, is that in the beginning, before we had the 150 pages of rules, we were given the impression that we had a lot of flexibility with how we could use these funds, and the rules certainly put plenty of guardrails in place. So we certainly are focusing on the public health element of this, and how can we advance some of the public health initiatives associated with mitigation and prevention of COVID-19. We want to think about what are some of the behavioral health issues that have resulted from COVID-19. How can we support those things? We are obviously interested in housing and housing instability, that is an element of COVID-19 and ARPA relief that we can focus on. We can provide further economic relief and assistance to small businesses. Revenue loss is much smaller category, which is not something that- You know, we may have a small portion of funding for revenue loss, but that's not a primary priority. And we are obviously interested in exploring water and sewer infrastructure and how we might have projects in that category.

Last year saw not only COVID-19 dominate the headlines, but conversations around equity and systemic racism related to the Black Lives Matter movement. Do you see any of that conversation bleeding into the conversation about ARPA funding as you plan out in spending over the next few months?

Well, you know- I think there might be some intersections. You know, for example, there is a very strong emphasis in the federal regulations around making sure that we're focused on the people who have been the most harmed, the hardest hit neighborhoods. For example, families in the Morningside and the West Side, people who live within the census tracts of economic disadvantage. There's a strong emphasis in those, in the regulations, in focusing the funds in those areas. So there might be some intersection there around racial disparity with regard to health outcomes with regard to housing values. We put the At Home In Pittsfield program in place to help the economically disadvantaged, advance their housing equity. So there's, there is, there may be some intersection there, but specifically focused on the Black Lives Matter movement is not an element of the ARPA program.

Looking forward from this moment, when will Pittsfield actually have the money in hand? And at what point do you hope to have a fully assembled advisory committee to actually start doling it out?

We have already received the first disbursement of $16.2 million, we will receive the second disbursement in May of 2022. And the funding is to be used between March of 2021 through December of 2024. And so we have taken our time to ensure that we are moving in the right direction with compliance with the expectations of the program. I am hoping to have a more specific plan by the fall. We want to get our community survey out by the end of July, stakeholder meetings in August, and hopefully narrowing the focus by the fall.

Are there other models or other communities and their use of the ARPA funding that you've looked at as an example looking into spending your allotment of the sum?

Well, I think communities are- You know, first of all, not every community got these funds. So we are in a strong position to really make some meaningful futureproof impacts on how this this money can be used for the future of our city, how do we best serve the most people with this resource. So there are communities like ours that are going through a similar process that we're going through, and I think each community may have some very unique attributes, very unique circumstances that they want to address. But I feel comfortable that the process we've laid out is really going to engage people in a really transparent way.

When it comes to distributing the survey, what kind of thinking goes into making sure that it makes its way to as many Pittsfielders as possible in an equitable manner?

Well, you know, we always are challenged by how do we reach everyone when it comes to any kind of communication, but certainly a survey. And we would use all the platforms available to us. It would likely be an online survey, but we would make it available to, say, for example, at the library. So if somebody wanted to complete a handwritten survey, they could do it at the library. And we would do as much communications across all of our platforms to make sure that residents know that the survey is out there, and we would certainly, you know, welcome ideas on how to distribute that. For example, we would make sure that Working Cities has knowledge of the survey and maybe makes it part of one of their Working Cities Wednesdays meetings.

Will there be a Spanish language version of the survey available?

There will be a Spanish language version. Yes.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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