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What Happened to the ARPA Funds?

On April 22nd, I wrote a letter to the town administrator requesting information on how over 6 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds had been spent or were intended to be spent. ARPA requires transparency and community buy-in of projects so I naively thought the request would receive an immediate answer. Having heard nothing, I wrote another email a week later. I received what amounted to an electronic post-it note that the town had spent $76,000 on Covid supplies. No word on other projects in the pipeline. 

 

I wrote another email stating that I wanted information not only on the projects that had been completed, but those that were under consideration. I received a rather defensive note from the finance director forwarded through the town administrator's office. Long experience has taught me that when someone seems to be hiding something, there is usually a reason so when the override questions came up at town meeting, I rose to ask why ARPA funds were not being used to defray part of the cost, especially for infrastructure elements like technology upgrades, which ARPA encourages towns to make. I noted that the citizens had a right to understand what was happening with ARPA funds BEFORE voting for overrides. My questions were ignored.

 

This pattern continued until, fed up, I made a complaint to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office. Lo and behold, the Select Board had the first public discussion of ARPA funds in a year while the complaint was under consideration. They voted in $144,000 for rail trail renovations. Moses Grader, the lone select person on the ARPA committee made great fanfare of being careful about the funds for the benefit of our children and grandchildren. 

 

My question is this: if those children and grandchildren are of such concern, why isn’t the town using some of the ARPA funds for part of the override for the school department, which will permanently increase our taxes despite some of the items to be covered being one-off expenditures? If there is such great concern for our children and grandchildren, why isn’t the town using ARPA to fund items in the behemoth town override? Why not use ARPA funds for the 1.7 million in tech improvements (a priority for ARPA) and the work to roads and sidewalks that will total 2.5 million per year for the next 4 years? 

 

Unlike many other Massachusetts towns, Marblehead has had no public forums to discuss ARPA funds. To date, none are even planned. I was told an unrepresentative survey was done.

 

The Secretary of the Commonwealth sided with the town in a decision that invited me to add more information. I didn’t know the right answers to ask at the beginning of this process but by the end, I did. Clearly, the powers that be realized that as well and I got the list of projects the ARPA committee is considering. As suspected, there is overlap between the ARPA committee list and the override list. I’ll end with a question I asked at a select board meeting to great consternation: If ARPA funds could be used, why is the town trying to use an override to fund some of these items? Per usual, there was no response other than blow back for an “offensive” question.

 

Laurie Barham

West Shore Drive, Marblehead

 

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