Millions of dollars will soon flow to local governments in the Monadnock Region, thanks to the federal coronavirus relief bill passed last month. Cheshire County expects to receive more than $14 million, with an estimated $7.5 million on top of that going to the county’s 23 municipalities. Additional money is earmarked for local education.
To help make sense of it all, the county government has hired a part-time point person, attorney and former N.H. Rep. William Pearson of Keene.
“This is one of the first times we’ve seen this kind of money come through the area without the kinds of strings that were attached on something like the CARES Act,” Pearson told the county commissioners at a March 24 meeting, shortly after his hiring.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden on March 11, contains a raft of provisions, including a $350 billion infusion to local, state, tribal and territorial governments.
Governments can use the money for four purposes: making up for shortfalls in funding government services; boosting the pay of essential workers; investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure; and responding to the pandemic and its economic fallout, including through assistance to households, nonprofits or small businesses. The money cannot be used to cut taxes or shore up pensions.
Funding for counties and municipalities will go out in two tranches — half within 60 days of passage, and the rest a year later. (It may take longer for small cities and towns because their funds are routed through the states.) It can be spent through the end of 2024.
Local officials said they are awaiting more detailed guidance from the Department of the Treasury about how the money can be spent before making any decisions.
When the first installment hits the county’s bank account, “it is going to sit there so that we can truly understand what it is that we can and cannot do,” Cheshire County Administrator Chris Coates said in an interview Monday.
Pearson, who has a degree in political science from Keene State College and recently graduated from the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law, served in the N.H. House from 2014 to 2020.
He will be paid $22.95 an hour, which is coming from an unfilled position in the county’s finance department, according to Coates.
“It is our expectation that his salary would be covered under the ARP funding that we will be receiving as it does allow for administration costs,” Coates said in an email.
Pearson said part of his part-time job will be to understand the law’s requirements, something he said he’s well suited to with his legal and government background, but the role is broader than that. He said he plans to keep track not just of the county’s allotment, but all the money flowing into the area, along with other potential sources of funding.
That will help the county identify where its funds could have the greatest impact — and what projects or needs are, or could be, covered by other funding streams, he said.
“The real gains, I think, that are going to come out of the [American Rescue Plan] are going to be made by leveraging these funds in combination, getting that kind of multiplier effect,” he said in an interview Monday. “... If there are already nonprofits doing the work on the ground, if there are ways that we can partner with the city of Keene or Stoddard or any of the municipalities in the area to make these dollars go even further, that’s what we’re looking to do.”
For instance, Pearson told commissioners last month, the county could determine that water, sewer or broadband is a priority. But that doesn’t mean the county would automatically dip into its federal relief money.
“The question is, which funds is Cheshire County going to use for that?” he said. “Are there already dedicated funds from one of the block grants for instance, in one of the other provisions?”
That also means thinking about other funding opportunities on the horizon, such as the massive infrastructure spending plan Biden has proposed.
Municipalities in the Monadnock Region won’t see as much money as the county government, though they are still slated to get substantial amounts. According to estimates posted on the U.S. Senate Democrats’ webpage — which may differ from the final figures determined by Treasury — many local towns should expect six-figure disbursements, with the smallest communities still receiving tens of thousands of dollars.
Keene, the biggest community in Cheshire County, is estimated to receive more than $2 million. City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said city councilors will discuss those funds during their annual budgeting process this spring. She noted that making up for COVID-related revenue losses “will certainly be part of the conversation.”
In Swanzey, officials are just beginning the “brainstorming phase” but awaiting further guidance from Treasury, Town Administrator Michael Branley said. “We’re really still just trying to get a better handle on how it can be used.”
According to the estimated breakdown, Swanzey would get about $700,000.
Similarly, with the county funds, Coates and Pearson said it’s too early to say how they might be used or launch a formal process to determine that, before the federal government issues its detailed guidance. At this point, Pearson said he’s listening, informally, to local stakeholders to understand their needs, writing them down in a sort of unofficial community “wish list.”
Coates said whatever funds Cheshire County eventually spends would go through the board of commissioners and the county delegation — the county’s legislative body, made up of local state representatives.
“It’s about understanding, and then starting to build a vision, and then bringing that to the commissioners and bringing that to the delegation,” he said.