Change To ‘Final, Final’ Rules Frees Up Covid Funds For Unrestricted Town Use

Photo: The American Rescue Plan signed on March 11, 2021

It’s true: the squeaky wheel did get greased.

A last-minute reversal of state regulations which likely would have forced Belmont to hand back a substantial portion of millions of dollars in federal Covid-19 relief funding will now allow the town to spend the entire $7.6 million as it sees fit.

“As of Thursday afternoon … we were informed that the interim final rule changed yet again. I’m told this is the final, final interim final rule, which puts the town in a great position,” said Patrice Garvin, Belmont Town Administrator who with the town’s state and federal elected representatives.

After a quick word with the town auditor, “we were able to all of our money as revenue loss if we choose and we can use it as unrestricted as we’d like,” Garvin told the Select Board on Monday, Jan 10.

“We were concerned that we had to return [the 7.8 million],” said Adam Dash, select board chair. “This is phenomenal.”

While the grant does nothing to solve the massive structural deficit looming over Belmont, it will allow the town’s planners breathing room for at least the next two budget cycles as the funds will come in two $3.9 million segments with the second available next fall.

In mid-March 2021, Belmont received $8.8 million as part of the Biden Administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan – dubbed the American Rescue Plan Act – with $1 million going off to the schools. But as Belmont was preparing to incorporate the funds to replace revenue lost during the pandemic, it became apparent regulations imposed by the state would placed a stranglehold on the funds.

After a careful reading of the rules and regulations, the town’s auditor – Craig Peacock, a partner with Powers and Sullivan – determined that during the tight 18 month window the state is using to calculate lost revenue, the 2018 voter-approved debt exclusion used to finance the building of Belmont’s new Middle and High School, as well as the state’s partial reimbursement of expenses constructing the building was seen by Beacon Hill as a revenue “gain” for the town.

“As you remember, we had the town auditor come in and report out that … we could not find any revenue loss calculation” under the then final interim regulations, said Garvin on Monday.

While he could not give the town a financial balm, Peacock suggested a more political avenue of relief. “As they say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease so I don’t think it ever hurts to try to contact” state legislators, said Peacock at the time.

And that’s what Belmont did.

At the urging from the Select Board to air its consternation of the rules, Garvin sent a letter before Christmas “prompted by a lot of the town’s frustration with the final interim rule” to the town’s elected officials – State Sen. Will Brownsberger and State Rep. Dave Rogers – as well to [US Rep.] Katherine Clark, “letting her know that we are we’re in a really tough position with revenue lost calculation given the interim final rule,” said Garvin.

The result was a letter from the entire Massachusetts Congressional delegation to the US Secretary of the Treasury asking to provide relief to Belmont and a number of other small and mid-sized municipalities which found themselves in a similar predicament.

On Thursday, Jan. 6, came the good news from the state that the new change will allow any community to use up to $10 million in ARPA funds to recover revenue lost which has no bearing on each town’s final calculation.

“We will be able to take all of the money that we received from ARPA … and not have any restrictions for it,” said Garvin.

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