PORTSMOUTH — The good news for the city is it still has about $5.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds left to spend.
The bad news is city leaders have already received about $17.4 million in requests for projects seeking to use the remaining federal dollars, according to City Manager Karen Conard.
The City Council and the previous City Council have “obligated” about $7.4 million of the approximately $12.8 million in ARPA funds the city received during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Conard explained during a City Council work session Monday night that the granting of ARPA funds is “the way that the federal government chose to provide funding … for state and local governments” during the pandemic.
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The $17.4 million in funding requests the city has already received includes about $12.8 million in projects proposed by city staff, $1.3 million in projects requested by the Portsmouth Housing Authority, $480,000 in projects recommended by the city’s Arts & Non-Profits Blue Ribbon Committee and $2.7 million in initiatives proposed by public/health and social service entities, Conard said.
Mayor seeks orderly process
Mayor Deaglan McEachern stressed the importance of making sure “we’re all kind of …pulling in the same direction here.”
“I think one of the things I’ll be grappling with is how do we best use the money to offset the financial impacts versus do things we wouldn’t normally do but are necessary either as a result of the pandemic or a result simply of the opportunity that’s in front of us,” McEachern said.
During an interview Tuesday, the mayor said “it’s like everything we do on the council, it’s a balancing of priorities,” when asked how they would decide on which projects to select.
“Obviously we want to be fiscally responsible to taxpayers and do projects that are non-recurring, so it doesn’t grow the overall budget,” McEachern said.
At the same time, he talked about looking at the project requests through “a special lens” because of the way “the pandemic changed America and changed Portsmouth.”
He pointed specifically to how COVID “negatively affected the community’s mental health.”
Lots of opinions on how Portsmouth should spend the money
During Monday’s meeting, several people offered their opinions about how the remaining federal funds should be spent.
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Susan Sterry, the co-chair of Portsmouth’s Cemetery Committee, reminded the council that “back in 2013 the city spent thousands of dollars to get a professional assessment done of our historical cemeteries.”
That assessment came up with 13 necessary projects at a total cost of about $1 million, she said.
“Only one project out of all of those 13 has been done,” she stated.
Portsmouth’s historic cemeteries, she said, are in “really tough shape.”
“Our oldest one here, Point of Graves … may be the oldest graveyard …in the state of New Hampshire, if not we’re the second,” Sterry said. “We have a lot of influential people that have been buried here, but we also have a lot of professional people who set standards even back in the 1600s for medical, surgeries, scientific discoveries, and you name it.”
She asked the council to remember Portsmouth’s historic cemeteries “when things like this come up.”
The cemetery is located on Mechanic Street.
Will Arvelo is the executive director of Cross Roads House and also is the co-chair of the Covid-19 Response Blue Ribbon Committee.
The committee will be making “recommendations to this body on how to expend some of the remaining ARPA funds on low-cost, high-impact recovery solutions,” he told the council.
“Preliminarily, we have identified several areas of need as follows: mental health, transportation, work-force shortage, childcare, food insecurity, the unhoused, racial issues, gun violence and needs of children and parents,” he said.
Former Mayor Rick Becksted said housing “is the number one issue” for him.
He noted that McEachern previously referenced “a work force (housing) account that was created and never funded.”
“I think we take a great opportunity now to go and replenish or fill an account that had been created and never filled,” Becksted said.
He suggested creating a property tax exemption program for landlords who meet the state’s work-force housing definition.
“We need to protect the housing that we have today,” Becksted said.
Landlords who meet that housing cost level could get a reduction on their property taxes, he added.
City officials also released a list Monday of ARPA funds that have been “obligated to date” for various city projects, Conard said.
That includes $2 million for street paving, management and rehabilitation, $2.3 million toward Phase 2 of the Islington Street corridor project, $900,000 for public safety records management/computer aided dispatch system for police and $250,000 for citywide storm water drainage improvements.
The federal monies used have helped manage the city budget, along with helping to “offset a tax rate increase and therefore it was a benefit to every citizen,” Conard said.