Last week, Democratic Congressman Richard Neal was in the Berkshires, taking a victory lap in the Massachusetts 1st district. $41 million of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan COVID relief package is coming to Berkshire County. While Pittsfield will receive the lion’s share of the money, North Adams – the county’s second city of 13,000 – will take home just under $4 million. WAMC spoke with Mayor Tom Bernard about what he wants to do with it.
BERNARD: The preliminary number that I have seen in, between direct municipal aid and then the funding that is allocated at the county level, which automatically will transfer to the municipality, is about $3.7 million for the city of North Adams.
WAMC: Now, at this point, what do you want to do with that money?
Well, you know, we're still trying to make sure we understand all of the guidance that will come from the from the treasury, but, you know, some of the allowable uses are continuing to respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency. The big one is revenue reduction – sorry, replacing revenue reduction due to the pandemic, so for example, things such as our meals and occupancy taxes that, because we didn't really have a summer season last year, have come in below where we, where they have been in the past. And then the other one that's really interesting is, there's a line in the legislation about investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure and one thing that we are really exploring is if and how that will allow us to establish a water and sewer enterprise fund for the city of North Adams, which is something that we've talked about and has been recommended for a number of years and this may be the funding source that allows us to kick start that that process.
Now, Mayor Tyer of Pittsfield has talked about convening experts and community members in this conversation about the money. What do you plan to do as far as the plotting out of spending that $3.7 million?
I think one of the first things is it will be part of conversations through the city the city budget process. Again, we're still trying to understand all of the potential uses so that we can come forward with a game plan and then present that for input.
In Pittsfield they're getting their money in two disbursements. Given that it's a much smaller sum, is North Adams receiving it in one chunk, so to speak, or over two payments?
No, the guidance I understand is that it will come in two tranches: one this year and then one a year from now and those should be just about equal allotments. So again, of the $3.7 million we should see $1.8 million, close to $1.9 million this year and then the balance of that coming a year from now. And it can be used through the end of calendar year 2024, so some of this is addressing, you know, short and medium term needs, but also making sure that we're thinking about how to use this over an extended recovery period.
One of the prevailing themes of the pandemic and 2020 were local government talking about how little federal support they were getting. Does this take a step towards addressing that that lack of funding over the last 12 months?
I think this is critically important. You know, between the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act we are seeing federal support and what's critical about the Rescue Plan Act is it's coming directly to the municipality with greater flexibility for us. But again, you know, it's also important to recognize that we're seeing more funding in the schools, we're seeing more direct aid to individuals and residents through the stimulus, so there's money coming into the to the community. I know there's discussions of how these funds will help to reduce child poverty in communities, at least for this year, while congress tries to figure out how to make some of those things permanent. So I think what we've seen since the Biden administration took office is much more focus at the administration level, but also with the effective control of congress with the vice president being the tiebreaker on, you know, voting items really has made a difference and so, you know, you're not only seeing benefit from this, but you're seeing why elections matter too.
Lastly, looking forward, there's conversation about a mammoth infrastructure spending bill. When you think about infrastructure money coming into North Adams, Mayor Bernard, where do you see that money going?
Oh, so many places Josh. You know, it's, again the details are going to are going to matter and the priorities- But certainly, you know, if these are things that can help with investments in our water system, something we've talked about before, helping to support investments in a new public safety building, investments in outdoor recreation, you know, the long discussed, you know, bike path project. You know, we've talked about our flood control system and infrastructure there, and you know, how do we partner with, you know, state and local and federal government to make sure that we have a good plan and that- You know, the word that I've heard is “shovel worthy.” So if you think about era, you know, 12, 13 years ago, it was about “shovel ready” projects, and the word I'm hearing is an interest in “shovel worthy” projects. So it's how do we get things advanced to a point where they are credible for, for this massive investment, which is an investment in communities, it's an investment in jobs, it's certainly an investment in infrastructure and deferred maintenance, all of which really will make a difference.