Groton seeks public input on spending of coronavirus relief funds

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Oct. 17—GROTON — The city and town plan to seek public comments on how to spend millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds.

Public open houses will be held Tuesday from 1 to 3 p.m. at City Hall and 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Senior Center.

The town is receiving nearly $8.6 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, Town Manager John Burt said. It has received half of the ARP funds, and is slated to receive the second half in mid-2022.

The city is receiving $1.3 million in ARP funds this year, and another $1.3 million next year, City Mayor Keith Hedrick said.

The town and city are working together to reach out to the public to get input on the use of ARP funds and also to educate people on how the funds can be used, Hedrick said.

Burt said the town's intent is to focus on supporting public health, addressing negative economic impacts and investing in infrastructure.

According to the Department of Treasury, state and local entities can apply the funds to support public health, "address negative economic impacts caused by the public health emergency, including economic harms to workers, households, small businesses, impacted industries, and the public sector," "replace lost public sector revenue," "provide premium pay for essential workers" and "invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure."

Hedrick said the City Council's priorities are to use the funds toward residents and small businesses, governmental social services, nonprofit social services and infrastructure.

Burt said there will be two phases of public input. The first phase will establish the basic parameters for use of the funds, without unnecessarily restricting ideas, he said. Officials are interested in hearing what people come up with for ideas about what the community needs.

Those ideas then will be grouped into main categories and presented to the Long-Term Recovery Committee and then the Town Council "to provide a more refined approach on public input in the second phase," Burt said.

"The outreach will be going through this month and likely the first half of November," with the hope of allowing nonprofits and businesses to file applications for funding in mid-November, he added.

The Planning Department developed an outreach strategy for engaging the public in the decisions, said Burt, who gave kudos especially to Tabitha Harkin, community development planner, for her work and leadership in the process.

The strategy includes the open houses; an online engagement website, which is expected to go live on Oct. 19, so people can vote for their preferred projects; and ads on Groton television. The town is planning to have self-serve kiosks in the library and/or the Groton Senior Center for people to access the website.

Residents can drop in to the open houses, according to a news release.

"Staff will be present to facilitate feedback through interactive tabletop exercises," Harkin said in a statement. "There will not be a formal presentation, we are focused on listening at this event."

The Town Council already has approved setting aside $357,757 in ARP funding for "near term needs," including $100,000 for an ARP fund navigator, $150,000 for Human Services and $107,757 for miscellaneous needs.

The navigator — a temporary position for three to four years — would manage ARP-funded projects, process grant awardees, be the point of contact for requests and questions and serve as a liaison to the community, staff the Long-Term Recovery Committee and handle reporting requirements, among other tasks, according to a resolution approved by the Town Council.

The Town Council previously approved $85,878.94 for Ledge Light Health District, as well as $56,364.06 to the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, toward an ARP coordinator for the region.

The Representative Town Meeting has approved those ARP funding items, except the miscellaneous needs request, which is slated to go before the RTM at its November meeting, Burt said.

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