Photo: President Joe Biden signing the American Rescue Plan. Creator: Adam Schultz | Credit: White House
Not only will most Belmont residents receive a $1,400 check from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Biden on March 11, but their Town of Homes is also set to be a beneficiary from the same stimulus package created to lessen the economic repercussions of COVID-19.
According to State Sen. Will Brownsberger, preliminary information from the state shows Belmont will receive approximately $8.6 million from the Rescue Plan with $1 million of the total targeted to Belmont schools.
“I would just like to underline that most of this money is coming from the federal government,” Brownsberger told the Belmont Select Board at its meeting held virtually on Monday, March 15. “This is rain comes falling from US Sen. [Elizabeth] Warren, Sen. [Ed] Markey and US Rep. [Katherine] Clark, so credit to them.”
In addition, both Brownsberger and State Rep. Dave Rogers, also at the meeting, said due to revenues coming into state coffers stronger than expected despite the pandemic’s economic downturn due to the pandemic, state aid to cities and towns will be greater than earlier forecast.
But before anyone in Town Hall or the school department begins spending this one-time windfall, Brownsberger told the board “that aid comes with a number of strings in terms of … how it can be used.” And nearly all of the threads have to do with COVID.
Brownsberger said the funding comes with defined eligibility criteria that will determine “how much of that money can be used for general government purposes and how much of it can be used only for particular projects” related to COVID relief.
According to preliminary reports, the money can be spent on one of four categories which includes:
- Reimburse town funds spent responding to the public health emergency of COVID,
- Lessen the negative economic impact on the community, (“So it could be broadly used to provide aid to small businesses, households,” Brownsberger said.)
- Replace town revenue lost to the COVID recession, and
- Make investments in water, sewer, or broadband.
To receive the funds, the town will commit to a certification process – rather than applying for the money – in which the town tells the state (which is running the program for the federal government for municipalities smaller than 50,000 people) that it understands the constraints of how the funds will be used.
Rogers said regulations are still being written by the US Treasury “on how the money can be spent as much of it is earmarked and targeted in very specific ways.”
Patrice Garvin, Belmont’s town administrator, said she has “not received enough information on how this money can be used.”
On the state side of the fiscal ledger, Rogers said the state budget is “in reasonably good shape given everything that has happened” and the legislature is now expected to have the ability to fund Chapter 70 general education aid formula at a level above Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s estimate for state aid announced on Jan. 27.
“We’re very committed to funding the Student Opportunity Act designed to increase local school aid to a level that’s really commensurate with a town’s need or actual spending, particularly for Belmont on the cost of health care and special education,” said Brownsberger. The end result is Belmont could see “maybe a few $100,000” more in Chapter 70 aid in fiscal 22.
One area the state is advising cities and towns not to do is make concrete fiscal decisions using these figures.
“[The Secretary of State’s office which distributed the data] said the information … should be viewed as preliminary and subject to change,” said Brownsberger reading from notes. “We’d strongly advise against the town making plans based on this preliminary information as the US Treasury will ultimately calculate the final amounts. So towns should not make plans about overrides based on these estimates.”
And that is the word coming from the campaigners seeking to pass the override on April 6.
Unfortunately, the stimulus money “doesn’t change the fundamentals concerning Belmont’s structural deficit, which is projected to be almost $20 million over three years even after spending down our cash reserves,” said Nicole Dorn, co-chair of Yes for Belmont which is advocating for the passage of a $6.2 million Prop 2 1/2 override on the April 6 town election ballot.
“This one-time infusion of funds won’t cover our operating expenses because it is restricted to certain programs or needed for COVID-related expenses. Every year we delay addressing our budget issues only makes our structural deficit worse, and means we’ll need a bigger override that is more expensive for taxpayers,” she said.