Members of the Marblehead Select Board recently expressed conflicting views regarding its allocation of the town’s remaining $3.3 million in federal COVID relief funds from the American Reinvestment Plan Act (ARPA).
During a public meeting on May 10, these contrasting opinions arose as the Select Board considered, and ultimately approved, two ARPA funding requests worth $93,513 for the Marblehead Public Schools. These proposals were the most recent recommendations from an ARPA working group chaired by Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer.
‘Circumstances have changed’
The working group prioritizes projects based on approved criteria, including public health, safety and infrastructure. The Select Board approved the criteria during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Select Board members Erin Noonan and Alexa Singer commended the ARPA working group but voiced a mutual desire for the Select Board to reassess the established criteria.
“The whole landscape has changed since we established these priorities,” said Noonan, who suggested a meeting to discuss the ARPA criteria. “We didn’t even consider some of the eligible uses for ARPA funds that are now allowable.”
Belf-Becker didn’t think that was necessary.
“Thatcher’s working group has done a stellar job following their parameters, the prioritization criteria adopted by the Select Board with input from a community survey,” Belf-Becker said. “I don’t feel comfortable talking about another meeting like next week, or whatever it would be, because they have work to do.”
Noonan and Singer suggested the working group’s prioritization rubric should be updated to reflect the needs of the Marblehead community now.
“We’re not in a public health emergency — the Center for Diseases and Control has declared it over. We’re not using ARPA funds for personal protective equipment or contract tracing,” Noonan said, referring to early COVID-19 interventions that ARPA funds covered. “Circumstances have changed, rendering some of these priorities irrelevant as we’ve already addressed them.”
She and Singer believed more attention and support should be placed on reversing students’ learning loss.
“I look at where these children are now and about what the impact is on their learning,” Singer said. “They will be the ones paying for this, so how are we accounting for that?”
‘A moral hazard’
Select Board Chair Moses Grader acknowledged some of Noonan and Singer’s points as “valid,” but he largely concurred with Belf-Becker. He emphasized the criteria’s focus on broader aspects of public health and safety, beyond COVID-19 interventions, and expressed hesitation about digressing from the established process.
The Select Board, as the town’s executive branch, retains exclusive authority to allocate and expend ARPA funds, meaning they don’t have to seek approval from the town’s legislative body — Town Meeting. While several Bay State communities have already allocated their ARPA funds, about half of Marblehead’s $6.1 million award remains unspent.
To ensure fairness, the Select Board established the ARPA working group and its criteria, which functions like a rolling grant program.
“We took a decidedly different tack [than other communities], obviously, I think we just cast a very wide net,” Grader said. “And we ultimately pulled together $18 million in funding requests, and it was like, ‘OK, thank God we have these criteria where we can evidence the system that Thatcher is, putting us through.’”
He added, “There is kind of a moral hazard with changing criteria midstream.”
Kezer acknowledged a public sentiment that the working group should work at a faster pace. However, the town has until 2026 to spend its ARPA funds.
“We also evaluate projects that have other funding sources,” Kezer explained. “That’s why some of these haven’t moved up because we’re working on identifying grants or state programs to maximize ARPA dollars.”
Currently, Kezer stated that the group’s primary focus lies in addressing infrastructure needs, including water, sewer, drainage and networking technology. They are also committed to supporting the local business community.
The May 10 affirmative votes from the Select Board, officials noted, demonstrate a commitment to tackling the issue of learning loss among COVID-era students.
The ARPA spending votes approved include the following:
— $27,313 for new classroom equipment at local schools, replacing outdated and broken science equipment, such as microscopes, balances, hotplates and centrifuges.
— $67,200 for new school technology, including Smart panels for the Village school. These panels will replace outdated projectors and incompatible touch boards