GREAT BARRINGTON — With some pandemic relief funds in coffers, the town is pushing most of this first half toward something residents say is badly needed — affordable housing.
The Select Board voted on April 11 to apply $850,000 of the $1,036,000 received last summer to various housing needs. The rest of the $2,075,908 in American Rescue Plan Act funds is set to arrive soon.
”What we see as potential projects would be grants that create housing, for various projects in town, rental assistance programs, utility assistance programs and then funding for day care assistance programs,” said Town Manager Mark Pruhenski.
The town will spend the remainder of the first half on electronic emergency signage for the fire department, an increase in staffing hours for the Health Department and a new ambulance for Southern Berkshire Volunteer Ambulance Squad.
ARPA funds are a $65 billion government aid package to help refortify communities hit financially by the coronavirus pandemic. There are rules — a spending plan has to be set by the end of 2024, and projects completed by the end of 2026. Money can only go toward certain categories, including critical infrastructure, hazard pay for frontline workers and public health.
Select Board Vice Chair Leigh Davis recused herself from the board’s vote, citing her work for Construct, Inc., which builds and manages affordable housing.
Pruhenski said the town had received many requests for funding and had to go through the results of a community survey about the spending to come up with a list of recommendations. Affordable housing appears to have been the greatest concern.
There are other problems, too. Board member Eric Gabriel suggested some of the second round funding pay for water filtration or something else to help “ease the burden” on residents struggling with drinking water concerns due to issues with Housatonic Water Works Co.’s aging system.
Then there is the matter of hazard pay for workers on the front lines, which also affected their families, town police officer Christopher Peebles pointed out.
“Firefighters, ambulance personnel and police, among others, showed up to work every day responding to people in calls, some knowingly having COVID and many being an unknown,” Peebles said, reading a statement on behalf of the union, the Great Barrington Police Association. Officers, he said, had to cover for each other when someone tested positive, “sometimes working 16-hour shifts and no days off until we were back to full staff.”
Peebles said public safety workers were also responding to mental health crises, since those professionals were not as available. A number of communities statewide have used the ARPA money for hazard pay for first responders in recognition of their “sacrifices,” and he said these workers want to “be a part of the conversation of how to best utilize these funds going forward.”