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Worcester outlines how it wants to spend $111M in COVID-19 aid; NAACP makes pitch

WORCESTER — As community groups call for the use of $111 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds coming to the city in a more focused way to lift up communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, the city has offered more details on its spending priorities.

The Worcester NAACP is the latest organization calling for the city to sharpen its focus with the funding — which will likely swell to nearly $150 million once the city's share of federal dollars earmarked for Worcester County are distributed — to put a higher priority on investing in Black, brown and low-income communities.

The NAACP over the weekend called for the city to use COVID-19 relief funds to support youth jobs and programs, increase support for Black-owned businesses, increase internet connectivity and home ownership for the city's low-income communities, and increase funding for Black nonprofits.

The Worcester NAACP has already joined other community groups in calling for the city to invest 20% of the ARPA funds, or around $22 million, in the city's nascent affordable housing trust fund.

The group said that throughout the pandemic, it has been made clear that Black and brown communities have suffered disproportionately, and that relief funds would be used to help them. The NAACP called for public hearings to get resident input on how the money should be spent.

"This is a once in a generation opportunity to make a change in Worcester’s Black, Brown and low-income communities," the group said in a statement.

It's still not a line-by-line accounting of the city's spending plans for the $111 million, but a report going before the City Council this week highlights the major areas that will benefit from ARPA funding.

Housing: $12.5 million

By far, the loudest voices in the discussion of how to spend the ARPA funds in the city have been affordable housing advocates, who have called for the city to infuse the affordable housing trust fund with at least 20% of the $111 million. They have said that the city has not adopted the two most commonly tapped mechanisms for capitalizing such funds in other communities — the Community Preservation Act and inclusionary zoning.

The city said Monday it plans to set aside $3 million in ARPA funds per year over three years, for a total of $9 million, for the affordable trust fund.

City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. said in the new report the city administration "looks to build on existing housing and household support networks and provide funding for new affordable units, safer housing for children, and household support opportunities."

Augustus said that considering other programs outside the city's direct allocation, including $5.9 million in federal HOME funds, $18.4 million is going toward housing in general. He said nationwide, ARPA provided $30 billion toward rental assistance, $10 billion toward mortgage assistance, and $5 billion toward housing and legal assistance that also isn't included in the city's allocation.

Around $1.9 million in ARPA funds in the city will go to the Worcester Housing Authority to support public housing infrastructure and new unit development, and $1.5 million over three years--around $500,000 per year--will also go toward the city's lead remediation program.

"These investments are in addition to the $6.1 million already received through the CARES Act to provide housing services to the city's most vulnerable residents through direct rental assistance, eviction prevention, housing system navigators, and homeless services," Augustus said.

According to Augustus' previous report to the council, the first phase of ARPA spending includes $5.5 million for housing, with $7 million set aside for future spending.

Public health: $8.3 million; Park improvements: $10.5 million

The federal money coming to the city will continue to support pandemic response efforts, which are ongoing and, with the delta variant of the virus in the national picture, still presenting challenges.

The $8.3 million earmarked for public health will fund navigators who connect residents to medical providers, and will fund communication support to keep residents informed. He said the city is looking at funding a proposed mental health services contract with the city with ARPA funds, which will free up tax levy funding to other areas not eligible for ARPA funding.

Also under the public health umbrella are improvements to the Worcester Public Library through book vending machine installations, as well as job training through the Worcester Jobs Fund and ongoing Recreation Worcester programs.

Park improvements will focus on investing in spaces in low-income areas located in "qualified census tracts." Included in $10.5 million in park improvements are a new spray park and rectangular field at the Tacoma Street Playground, along with improvements and security camera installations at Vernon Hill Park, the South Worcester Playground on Camp Street, Grant Square Park, Mulcahy Field and Bell Pond Beach.

Community Priorities: $10 million

Along with the NAACP, several community organizations and residents last month called for the city to hold hearings to get input from residents about how they think the ARPA money should be spent.

Other communities have had a more extensive public input process, but after he gave his initial briefing to the council last month about the first round of the city's ARPA spending priorities, Augustus said he thought his administration did a good job listening to community leaders in shaping his plan.

And he said that he is setting aside $10 million for community-driven priorities to improve neighborhood vitality and quality-of-life. Three public listening sessions have been scheduled: 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 23, at Quinsigamond Community College; 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 9, at the Boys & Girls Club; and 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16, at the Worcester Senior Center.

Business Assistance: $6 million

Augustus noted in his report that ARPA funds are focused on reclaiming customer confidence, providing pandemic-related customer safety improvements, and rebuilding customer bases. He said the city is enhancing existing business grant programs, and "recapturing Worcester's tourism market" with support for Worcester Regional Airport and Discover Central Mass. marketing efforts.

Augustus said businesses have already received, and continue to receive, significant support through various programs. For example, he said through initial CARES Act pandemic relief funding, the city was able to support 271 city businesses. Of those 271 businesses, 59% were minority owned and 43% were women owned, Augustus pointed out.

Creative economy: $4.5 million; Food security: $1.5 million

The city is setting aside $4.5 million for direct distribution and enhanced funding for the Worcester Arts Council to draw visitors back to cultural organizations. Augustus said he is working with the Cultural Development Office on a program to financially support broad-based cultural events that draw residents and visitors to the city.

The city manager is recommending $1.5 million to support local foods and healthy eating, including the expansion of the Worcester Regional Food Hub at Union Station, which will include shared commercial kitchen space, retail and wholesale space for local farmers and food producers.

Revenue recovery: $15 million; Water/sewer: $21 million

The American Rescue Plan Act allows for cities and towns to recover lost revenues during the pandemic, and the city is taking advantage. Augustus said the city is eligible for around $12 million in revenue recovery funds, mostly related to the DCU Center and municipal parking revenue.

Water and sewer infrastructure improvements are specifically mentioned in the ARPA guidelines, and Augustus said $21 million will be set aside to address various projects across the city that he said will "help alleviate the burden on rate payers in the future."

Public facilities: $3 million; Remote tech: $28 million

Money for public facility improvements will go toward improvements at City Hall and the DCU Center to better prepare buildings for pandemic conditions.

The city's 30-year-old financial management and human resource systems remain "place- and paper-based," Augustus told the council in his report. ARPA funding will help cover the cost of implementing the new cloud-based system, and Augustus said the city is also setting aside $12 million for "study and implementation of key broadband improvements," to benefit residents struggling with poor broadband access and internet speeds. A city task force has been exploring the idea of moving the city to a municipally-owned broadband model.

Augustus: Important to move forward quickly

The city has so far received around $55 million, or roughly half, of its $111 direct ARPA allocation. Cities and towns have to obligate the money by the end of 2024, and have until the end of 2026 to spend it. Augustus said it's important to move forward with key items quickly. He said larger projects like the park improvements, water and sewer work, and technology implementation require significant lead time.

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