Deanna Ruffer ARPA culture.jpg (copy)

Pittsfield Community Development Director Deanna Ruffer listens to audience feedback during a community forum on potential uses for the nearly $41 million in American Rescue Plan Act money coming to the city.

With the results of a citywide survey in hand, Pittsfield leaders have a decent start on what we hope is a continuing and thorough process to gather constituent input on how to spend more than $40 million in federal coronavirus relief money. More importantly, though, the responses also indicate where and how this input-seeking process should expand to give all corners of the Pittsfield community a chance to weigh in on how to invest this once-in-a-generation windfall.

Pittsfield residents got to chime in on a survey on spending coronavirus relief money. Here are the highlights.

To be sure, the digital survey that was open to the public throughout the month of August has produced data that’s worth heeding. A majority of respondents indicated prioritized support for a range of proposed project areas, from small-business assistance (57 percent) and workforce training (51 percent) to mental and behavioral health services (57 percent) and drinking water infrastructure investment (51 percent). There is other data in addition to these figures, however, that must be taken into consideration.

The survey produced about 1,200 responses. Several demographics, based on 2019 American Community Survey estimates, appeared to be underrepresented — elderly residents, those with disabilities, renters and Black residents, just to name a few. Meanwhile, residents from Wards 3 and 4 in the southeastern part of the city were overrepresented in the survey.

No one survey is methodologically perfect, and this one is food for thought and an important start to the community input process. But as we said while the survey was wrapping up earlier this month, it should be just that: a start. It’s good that we’ve got the ball rolling by hearing from these 1,200 respondents, but that only amounts to about 3 percent of the city’s total population. Spending decisions this important and unique should take into account the perspective of the other 97 percent as well.

Now, the city should heed not just the responses to this survey but the demographic data to better hone the input-gathering process. These ARPA funds represent a big boon for a city desperately seeking revitalization, with myriad possibilities for investment in the Pittsfield community’s future but only one shot at spending it correctly. There is plenty of time to arrive at a thoughtful spending plan that produces a rising tide for all boats. The totality of the money won’t even be hitting city coffers until the middle of next year.

As such, there’s plenty of time to continue this critical community conversation and for the city to make sure everyone in the Pittsfield community who wishes to has a meaningful chance to lend their voice to that conversation. There are many potential ways to do that. To reach more elderly citizens, for example, survey organizers might consider a more analog approach since digital forms might leave the less-tech-savvy and others in the dust. And given the geographical underrepresentation of some parts of the city within this survey — particularly the most vulnerable neighborhoods like Morningside and the West Side — leaders know where they should focus their efforts to make sure they get a fair reading of the community’s priorities.

These ARPA funds could make a large and long-lasting positive impact on the city’s future, but it belongs to the people of Pittsfield. Every one of those people who wants to have their say on its use should be able to, and we hope city leaders will take this opportunity to build on their efforts to seek this vital community input.