SCHENECTADY — The City Council in the coming weeks will begin hammering out details on a special committee that would be tasked with reviewing dozens of applications seeking millions in federal funding received under the American Rescue Plan Act.
Council President Marion Porterfield on Tuesday said she is hoping to form the committee in three weeks and that she is in the process of scheduling a series of special meetings where council members will discuss a number of key details that have yet to be decided, including criteria for choosing members and the exact role the committee would play going forward.
“The reason that the committee is even being formed is because when we were doing our tours people wanted to be part of the decision-making process,” she said.
Council members, last month, formally voted to form a committee to review the 70 applications the city received last year, seeking a combined $80 million in ARPA funding. The city received just under $53 million in funding under the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill approved by Congress last year.
Millions have already been spent by the city to recoup lost revenue and backfill positions, leaving around $12 million leftover from the initial tranche of $26 million received last year. A second tranche of funding is expected to be made available later this spring, and another round of applications will be open once the funds are received.
In total, the city has just over $38 million left to spend. The funds must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026. Unspent money must be returned to the federal government.
The urgency to form the committee was highlighted at a Development & Planning Committee meeting Monday during a discussion about using $120,000 in ARPA funding to install a series of lights in Jerry Burrell Park as part of a redevelopment project. The lights have long been requested by residents of the Hamilton Hill neighborhood where the park is located.
But several council members, including Porterfield, expressed concerns about spending additional ARPA money to fund city projects without having reviewed other applications.
In addition to recouping millions in lost revenue, the city is seeking to spend $3.5 million on a new Central Park pool near the vacant tennis stadium, which is currently in the early stages of development. The City Council approved $450,000 in ARPA funding to hire Saratoga Associates, a design firm, to draft plans for the pool, which would also include a bathhouse, restrooms and lighted pathways that would connect the swimming facility to nearby park attractions.
“I do have concerns that we’re spending down and when we get through our process where we’re actually going to be looking at applications and funding applications, we’re spending out and it’s less money and it seems like most of the money has gone to city projects,” Porterfield said at the meeting.
The committee ultimately decided to hold off on the request in order to examine alternative funding sources for the lighting project, including the use of SMART City funding, which was used to convert hundreds of street lights to LED and add smart censors. The topic is expected to be revisited in two weeks.
Schenectady isn’t the first local city to has sought to establish a committee to help determine how best to spend ARPA funding. Albany established a similar task force not longer after the legislation was signed into law.
But a number of key details must be worked out before Schenectady can form its own committee, including how many individuals would be appointed, how they would be selected and criteria for how each application would be reviewed.
Porterfield noted that the council must also work to ensure that members appointed don’t have ties to organizations seeking funding, which would create a conflict.
“If you have submitted an application I think it probably goes without saying that we couldn’t let you be on the review team,” she said.
Porterfield added that the ARPA funding is a unique opportunity for the city and that the goal is spend the money in ways that would have the greatest impact, a process, she noted, that could come with a few hiccups at times.
“We’re looking forward to making sure we’re doing the most that is possible to meet the needs of the community,” she said. “There is a bit of a learning curve, but we want to make sure we’re doing this well especially since there’s no expectation that we’re going to get this funding again.”
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.