Public health, equity, homeless are preliminary Amherst COVID relief spending priorities

Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2021

AMHERST — A public restroom building in downtown Amherst, modifications to the Amherst Regional Middle School to accommodate sixth-grade classes in the building, and the salary for a diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator are among potential uses for $11.9 million in federal money Amherst is receiving.

The ideas for spending the American Rescue Plan Act money, outlined in a presentation by Finance Director Sean Mangano to the Town Council on Monday, are the first step in a process that will include public input later this month.

Zoom listening sessions will be held on Oct. 13 at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., and on Oct. 21 at 4 and 7 p.m., through the Engage Amherst website, with links available at www.engageamherst.org/arpa.

Already, the process established by the Finance Committee over the summer has included internal discussions with department heads and committee members and conversations with representatives from local entities including the Amherst Business Improvement District, Family Outreach of Amherst and the Musante Health Center.

Mangano explained that the money can be used for several purposes, including mitigating impacts from COVID-19, addressing the economic impacts caused by the public health emergency, and investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

The current plan shows that the largest amount of the money, about $1.76 million, would go toward public health and racial equity activities. These would include funding the diversity, equity and inclusion position that is already in this year’s budget, maintaining four additional firefighters EMTs through fiscal year 2023 that were brought on initially with federal CARES Act money, and hiring an additional public health nurse and a staff person to support COVID-19 contact tracing and vaccine administration.

About $1 million would help the town explore transitional housing opportunities for individuals in the next two budget years, and implement other solutions for sheltering homeless people.

Another $1 million would be used to expand affordable housing in the next two years and to develop housing assistance programs.

The renovations at the middle school could use up a portion of $800,000 that would go toward education initiatives, while $700,000 would help town officials explore the creation or expansion of a youth center, with a request for proposals initially and then getting such a center up and running within four years.

Councilors had numerous questions about the spending priorities, and expressed concern that only $575,000 is dedicated to economic recovery for businesses, even though that was a hard-hit sector.

Under the outlined plans, a portion of that money would go to a small business startup and an emergency relief program over the next two years.

Also included in that spending is money for construction of a publicly accessible restroom building,

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said everyone supports the need for restrooms, but no site for where such a building would be constructed has been identified.

At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke asked if money could be set aside to extend the additional ambulance and firefighting staff beyond fiscal year 2023.

Other spending would go toward expanding preschool options, reducing fuel consumption and funding transportation for senior citizens.