$4B state relief bill spreads windfall around; Valley projects, agencies to benefit

  • One of the largest earmarks in the state’s $4 billion COVID-19 relief spending package is $5 million for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts’ new headquarters in Chicopee, being built to replace its longtime home in Hatfield. gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 12/3/2021 6:27:00 PM
Modified: 12/3/2021 6:26:27 PM

Completion of the Northampton Community Art Trust’s black box theater, an Amherst performing arts venue, a partnership to support development of Latino-owned businesses in Holyoke, and enhancements to food distribution at the Easthampton Community Center are included as part of the state’s $4 billion COVID-19 relief spending package.

They are among the hundreds of earmarks tucked into the plan to spend federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, a compromise bill between the House and Senate leaders that is heading to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.

The overall package would steer $500 million toward one-time bonus payments for lower-income essential workers who stayed on the job in person during the state of emergency. It would also deposit $500 million into the unemployment insurance trust fund to relieve pressure on businesses who fund the system via taxes and had to absorb costs stemming from a wave of joblessness during the pandemic.

The bill features also features:

■$530 million for housing initiatives.

■$400 million to expand access to mental and behavioral health supports and community-based primary care.

■$300 million for Medicaid home services.

■$260 million to support financially strained hospitals in areas particularly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

■$200 million for local and regional public health systems.

State Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, called the plan, finished this week by House and Senate officials, a “game changer” that meets statewide aspirations, local challenges and basic needs of housing, health care and food.

“This budget reflects a responsible, transparent, and responsive process and result,” Domb wrote in an email. “It may have taken a little longer than we had hoped, but the product is a really good budget.”

Sen. Jo Comerford’s office said the Northampton senator was instrumental in getting the $200 million for local and regional public health getting into the bill, with direct aid to communities with the least ability to meet minimum public health standards, along with support for transforming public health data systems.

Comerford also highlighted $7.5 million for regional storm damage disaster relief in partnership with Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield. That will cover some of the damages from storms in July in cities and towns in Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire counties. There is $1.5 million going to the University of Massachusetts for facility improvements at the Water and Energy Testing facility, where research is being done into contamination of wells and public drinking water systems by PFAS, sometimes known as forever chemicals.

A number of local and regional agencies and organizations will benefit directly from the bill if it is signed into law, such as $2 million that will assist TreeHouse Foundation in Easthampton to expand its model of foster care across the state.

Jared Freedman, chief of staff for Comerford, said Baker can sign the bill as is or veto aspects of it.

The long-awaited compromise over how to spend ARPA and fiscal 2021 surplus funds came together this week in a manner that saw the bottom line of the final bill grow by about $180 million beyond what the House and Senate had initially proposed to spend.

One of the largest earmarks locally is $5 million for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts’ new headquarters in Chicopee, being built to replace its longtime home in Hatfield. There is also $100,000 proposed for the Children’s Advocacy Center of Hampshire County to provide on-site mental health services to children and teens who have experienced trauma due to abuse, and another $100,000 for the Pioneer Valley Mosquito Control District.

The growth of the bill was due, in part, to a decision by top Democrats to accept earmarks sprinkled throughout the respective bills passed by House and Senate lawmakers. Senior officials in both branches said all earmarks from both bills were included in the final package.

“COVID had far-reaching implications on not just every sector of our economy, but every sector of the commonwealth. Every city and town faced dramatic impacts from COVID and while not every earmark may say COVID in it, or be described as COVID relief, there are a lot of things in this bill that will help build back recovery in those communities. The people that know that best in each of those communities are the people who represent them,” House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz said.

Michlewitz said in most cases the finl bill reflects the higher value for earmarks included in both bills, estimating the total value of earmarks to be in the range of $200 million to $300 million. He said many of the earmarks were funded with state tax surplus dollars, not ARPA funding.

Other examples of earmarks include $150,000 to remodel the historic Lexington Depot community building to improve public access for the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington, $300,000 for the Boch Center to make capital improvements to safely reopen the Wang and Shubert Theaters in Boston, and $250,000 to help the town of Belmont design a new skating rink.

In this region, a number of arts and culture projects are in line for funding, including $50,000 for the Emily Williston Library and Museum in Easthampton, $100,00 for the black box theater on Hawley Street in Northampton and $50,000 for The Drake, a Business Improvement District project in downtown Amherst.

For housing, $128,500 would go to Independent Housing Solutions in Northampton, $25,000 to Craig’s Doors in Amherst and $100,000 to Mass Fair Housing in Holyoke. For food security, $100,000 would go to the South Hadley Neighbors Helping Neighbors program, $40,000 to Granby To-Go, $75,000 to the Amherst Mobile Food Market, $25,000 to the Nuestras Raices garden in Holyoke and $100,000 to the Easthampton Community Center.

Public services are also being funded, including $25,000 for Blueprint Easthampton, $10,000 so Easthampton can plan safer outdoor spaces, $50,000 for Belchertown wayfinding signs, $100,000 for Hadley to upgrade its public works trailer air filtration system and $50,000 for Hadley public safety department improvements, $50,000 for the Southampton Council on Aging, and $80,000 for translation services and engagement with underrepresented communities in Amherst.

Business support includes $100,000 for the Latino Chamber of Commerce in Holyoke and $50,000 for the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce to develop Latino businesses.

Directly related to the pandemic, $50,000 will go to Holyoke Community College for workforce development; $50,000 so the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce can purchase COVID-19 rapid test kits; $100,000 for mental health services in Amherst public schools; and $25,000 to Tapestry in Holyoke to address opioid issues.

One of the larger earmarks is $50 million for the MBTA to make economic development improvements to transit stations in Norfolk County, which also happens to be where House Speaker Ron Mariano of Quincy resides.

Earlier this week, Mariano said the earmarking in the bill might wind up being the reason the House and Senate were able to pass this final bill during in an informal session, rather than wait until January when they could hold a roll call.

“One of the things we did by combining the budget and the ARPA money is there are some earmarks in there that everyone wants to see happen, so I think there’s enough in there to get everybody on board,” the speaker said, adding, “We don’t really anticipate anyone falling on their sword.”

While the final earmarked total was not immediately available, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation previously counted 415 earmarks added by the Senate worth $122.9 million in new spending, while the House spread $154.4 million in new spending through its bill with 411 amendments. While there was some overlap between the two bills, the taxpayers group said many were unique to each branch.

Some have questioned the propriety of spending COVID-19 recovery dollars on such local projects, particularly after cities and towns received their own direct ARPA aid. But others argue that this is exactly how Congress intended ARPA money to be spent.

Paul Craney, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, called the earmarking an “insult to the taxpayers.”

“Lawmakers are basically treating COVID-19 relief money as just another budget for their pork pet projects that will be funded next year during an election year. The biggest missed opportunity in this ARPA bill is the unemployment insurance fund for businesses,” he said.

The final bill allocates $500 million to help fortify the fund used to pay unemployment benefits, but employers are potentially on the hook to repay billions more over the next 20 years to cover the state debt racked up during the height of the pandemic. Baker proposed using $1 billion from the federal pot for unemployment relief.

Craney said the $500 million investment is “not even close to enough.” “The best way to reinvigorate the economy is by letting small business flourish and hire more people, but instead it’s going for a pier in Hull and a turf field at Brad Jones’ high school,” he said.

Massachusetts Municipal Association President Geoff Beckwith said he wasn’t concerned about the decision to allow earmarking in the bill.

“I think the magnitude of earmarking seems pretty reasonable in terms of the scope of the entire legislation,” Beckwith said.

Beckwith also said spending on local parks or gazebos, is not inconsistent with the desire of Congress to use some of the money to create outdoor spaces where people could gather more safely as a community. He said many of these projects would never get done without federal money because of local budget constraints.

“It’s not just about a particular structure. It’s about making sure the community has structures in place that reduce isolation during a public health crisis,” Beckwith said. “What the earmarking does is say, ‘Hey, we want our community to be included in this way,’ that spells it out.”

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