ARPA community forum public health 1 (copy)

Community Development Director Deanna Ruffer leads an Aug. 16 forum on potential public health uses for federal COVID-19 aid, at Conte Community School in Pittsfield. About 40 residents gathered to share their ideas for how to spend almost $41 million in American Rescue Plan Act money.

On Aug. 5, Pittsfield launched a survey seeking public input on how to spend more than $40 million in federal COVID relief headed to Pittsfield over the next year. That survey closed Wednesday afternoon, but this should be just the beginning of a robust and thoughtful community conversation about how the city can best use this sizable one-time windfall.

There is ample time for such a conversation. Like all municipalities getting money from the American Rescue Plan Act, the city has more than three years to decide where to spend it and more than five years to do the actual spending. Pittsfield received the first $20.3 million of these funds earlier this year, and will receive the other half next summer. There is a strong argument to spend what funds are currently in-hand relatively quickly to prime the pump for local economic recovery.

The deposit being split over two years, however, means the city and a diverse spectrum of stakeholders have an unrushed chance to think critically about where it makes sense to put these dollars, as well as the opportunity in the near future to address the evolving effects of the lingering coronavirus crisis and needs we don’t yet see that could become apparent down the line.

While the spending options for this considerable chunk of cash are quite wide, they are not unlimited. ARPA funds can be used for any of seven broad aims: public health programs and other measures to directly combat COVID-19; mitigate economic impacts caused by the pandemic; aid for disproportionately affected neighborhoods (in Pittsfield’s case, Morningside and the West Side); premium pay for low-income essential workers; municipal water and sewer projects; and broadband infrastructure.

The federal government’s guidance also included some specifics on what the funds cannot be used for: tax cuts; pension payments and deposits; legal settlements; federal grant matches; roads and bridges.

Between the survey and public forums held over the last few weeks, we are encouraged to see residents raise their voices about the needs in our community that could be meaningfully addressed with ARPA money.

Some have suggested direct investments such as community centers and small business in the more-vulnerable neighborhoods of Morningside and the West Side. Others have called for investments in child care supports, affordable housing and mental health services. Still others say that funds targeted toward local arts and culture institutions could help get back on track a sector that is a vibrant and vital part of the regional economy but was hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

The nice thing about the size of the sum headed into the city’s coffers is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be either/or — this is likely a once-in-a-generation opportunity to have a “yes, and” conversation about how to boost many corners of the community. We’re glad that the city has been proactive in prompting public input, and we want to see more of it over the process of developing a spending plan. Mayor Linda Tyer said that she will put together a blue ribbon committee of residents, business owners, nonprofit leaders, officials and other community stakeholders, and we hope that the discussions of that panel are as open to the community as the forums have been thus far. As far as surveys, let’s hope that this wasn’t the last — and perhaps city officials might consider ones that don’t require computer use to broaden the accessibility.

City officials told The Eagle that they’re received more than 900 responses to the citywide survey that wrapped Wednesday. That’s a good start, but that’s what it should be: a start. Those responses amount to around 2 percent of the city’s population. Meanwhile, the total ARPA funds Pittsfield is set to receive amounts to about $963 per capita.

This money belongs to the people of Pittsfield, and we want to see as many people as possible have a voice in what is hopefully a thoughtful process to determine how it is to be used.

Talk with your neighbors and your representatives alike; write a letter to the editor to The Eagle; make your voice heard. And, to our city officials, do everything you can to encourage and hear as many of those voices as possible.

This is a big opportunity for Pittsfield — let’s seize it together.