By Curt Peterson
More than 30 people attended Hartland’s second public meeting on Thursday night, Jan. 27 to discuss how the town might best invest $1,050,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.
Everyone attended virtually but Rendy Strawbridge of Barron Hill Road, who sat with Town Manager David Ormiston in Damon Hall. Of the 30 or so Hartland homes with no broadband access, two, including Strawbridge’s, are on that road.
“That’s why I’m here instead of home,” he said. “I can’t attend virtual meetings there.”
Sarah Wraight, the project manager for Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Commission (TRORC), facilitated the meeting, a discussion of 61 projects proposed by Hartland residents, town employees and Wraight and since the first ARPA meeting on July 13.
Although internet access got the most attention, other topics included a remedy for frequent breakdowns of the North Hartland private water system, digitizing town records, promoting social gatherings for seniors, affordable housing, and expanded child care accommodations.
It was agreed a few larger projects would be more manageable than multiple smaller investments —easier for the Select Board and town staff to oversee. A committee, yet to be named, will consider the ideas proposed and present a final list for Select Board consideration.
Federal regulations offer four eligible areas for using ARPA funds: Lost revenue, described as investments the town would have considered were it not for effects of the pandemic; public health projects related to fighting, recovering from, or preventing future events that might affect the town as the COVID pandemic has; premium compensation, meaning extra labor costs during the pandemic; and water, sewage or broadband problems.
Wraight said most projects other than water, sewage and broadband, will most easily qualify as lost revenue.
A short list of ineligible expenses includes reduction of pension liabilities, creating “rainy day” reserves, debt service, projects counter to official Covid guidelines, and unlawful investments.
Wraight presented a spreadsheet showing the eligibility of 61 suggestions developed during the Jan. 13 meeting, then rating them according to criteria.
Strawbridge and resident Greg Daniels made passionate pleas for help in the broadband area. Daniels, an attorney, said he rents office space in Woodstock because he doesn’t have internet service at home. Strawbridge has a similar situation, and his kids can’t do schoolwork from home. Neither want to wait six months before ARPA projects might actually begin. Strawbridge said fiber cables are so close, he can see the last tower from his house.
“I’m even willing to pay for bringing fiber cables ‘the last mile’ myself. Could the town pay me back out of ARPA money?” Strawbridge asked.
Wraight wasn’t sure.
Ormiston said money isn’t the only issue. Dealing with VTel, the internet provider for much of Hartland — hasn’t been great regarding larger projects.
Hartland Board of Listers chair Stacey Bradley said the general purposes of the ARPA funds are to compensate for physical and financial damage caused by the pandemic, or for investments to prevent or mitigate losses from similar events in the future.
Ormiston invited residents to contact him if they want to serve on the committee charged with researching the eligibility, practicality, appropriateness and benefits of a selected list of significant projects. He expects the committee to present its recommendations to the Select Board sometime in May. Their meetings will be public. Sarah Wraight said she will be available for guidance if needed.
Select Board member Phil Hobbie told the Mountain Times he hopes all the service groups in town will be represented on the committee.
“The committee has a lot of work to do,” Hobbie said. “We want to make sure there are enough people on the committee to get the job done, but not so many they get in each other’s way.”