WALLINGFORD — The Town Council will consider launching an investigation into the Economic Development Commission after the EDC circulated a flyer questioning the council’s process for allocating $13.1 million in federal pandemic relief funds.
Town councilors claim the flyer misrepresents the work the council has engaged in to allocate the funds, while EDC members say it was meant to provide more clarity for businesses and elected officials.
The flyer encouraged members of the local business community to attend the June 14 Town Council meeting to speak in favor of funding from the American Rescue Plan Act being devoted to businesses and non-profits which have been impacted by the pandemic. The flyer also said that councilors are considering reducing the share of the American Rescue Plan Act funding which is being devoted to businesses.
“As reported in the media and you may have read, several members of your Town Council are attempting to reduce the monies available for businesses and non-profits by allocating large sums of money to community projects before the businesses and non-profit needs are determined. We believe this tactic is misdirected and not aligned with the intention of the American Rescue Plan Act funds,” the flyer read.
EDC Chairman Joe Mirra said the flyer was intended to allow businesses to be more engaged in the ARPA process and to impress upon the council the importance of following the roadmap of gauging the scale of the need in town through application guidelines which are being drafted for businesses and nonprofits to solicit a portion of the funds.
“I’m sorry if someone was offended by this, but basically all we were trying to do is help them get a clearer picture from the small businesses themselves to aid them in getting that picture,” he said. “ … Basically we were hoping that it would even accelerate the process if they heard from the business community.”
He worries that the council is forgetting the purpose of the legislation behind the fund and without the voices of individuals directly impacted by the pandemic and economic shutdown, that focus could be lost.
After the EDC circulated the initial flyer, an updated flyer was sent with the words “Postponed By Town Council…Future Date To Be Determined” printed over the original text in large capital letters against a red background.
The council late last week published a revised agenda for this Tuesday’s meeting calling for a discussion of the flyer and a possible investigation of the EDC. The agenda item, submitted by Republican Councilor Craig Fishbein, cites Chaper III, Section 10 of the Town Charter, which states “The Council, by a vote of at least three (3) members, shall have the power to investigate any and all departments, offices and agencies of the town.”
Fishbein could not immediately be reached for comment.
But another councilor, Democrat Jason Zandri, labeled the flyer as libelous.
Zandri told the Record-Journal he believes the accusation that the council is running afoul of the federal government’s requirements for how the money is spent is false. He worries that the ARPA deliberations are becoming increasingly agenda-driven, with businesses, nonprofits, public projects and other parties interested in receiving a portion of the funding souring efforts to find the best use for the funds.
“They circulated a flyer-type handout to many local businesses basically indicating that there would be a discussion that would be had regarding the ARPA funds and within it … the tone of the words used within the flyer had an opinion or theme of libel as far as I’m concerned,” Zandri said.
Noting that other towns have spent the entirety of their ARPA allotments on government projects, he said that the current direction the council is moving in — splitting 50 percent of the $13.1 million between the business and non-profit sectors — already prioritizes businesses more than neighboring communities. He added that the potential projects the Town Council has considered funding with the ARPA money fall within both the uses the U.S. Treasury Department permits for the money and within what other municipalities have done.
The council voted last month to earmark $5 million towards renovating the Community Pool and Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. has identified $585,000 in potential municipal expenses that could be funded using ARPA, including a new ambulance, mower, fire station upgrades and an aerial lift.
“It indicated that we’re doing something that we shouldn’t be doing or not allowed to do. We are totally operating within the allowed use of these funds and for the Wallingford EDC to suggest anything else is undermining at the least. So this is a body that’s supposed to work hand-in-glove with the Town Council and it just seems like they’re trying to undermine any action that we’re taking. So I’m pretty disgusted by that communication,” Zandri said.
Republican Councilor Joseph Marrone said he would welcome having a conversation with businesses on the allocation of the ARPA funds, however he believes that the drafting and distribution of the flyer may have gone beyond the bounds of open government. Since the start of the discussions of how to distribute the funds, he said that the mayor’s office and EDC have been pushing for a greater share of the funds to go towards businesses.
“I think that what we’ve seen from the very beginning is a concerted effort from the administration to get a certain outcome,” he said. “ … This has been very agenda-driven and I hate to think that there’s anything nefarious going on.”
Mirra said that all discussion of drafting the flyer was done in public meetings and the EDC voted on its distribution in open session.
“It was at a public meeting, at an EDC meeting. It was discussed and voted on,” he said. “ … If there was a misinterpretation I’m sorry for it, but again this was not done with any other reason than to speed up the process and give them the information these businesses have to share with them.”
Economic Development Specialist Tim Ryan said the aim of the EDC was to make clear the importance of ensuring that a portion of the ARPA funds are dedicated to helping the economy recover.
“If you’re a delicatessen or a hair salon or a small manufacturer your impact from Covid is different, potentially different, and we felt the council would benefit from hearing some of the stories that we hear from small businesses,” he said. “ …The EDC position has been right from the start: we feel strongly first our role is to support business. That’s why we’re here, so it should come to no surprise to anyone that’s what we’re doing.”
Ryan said it’s both important that the experiences of businesses are considered by the council and that businesses are kept informed of the process and the potential for them to receive relief funds.
“In most cases, frankly, the businesses are not aware of the status of the council discussion and frankly those who feel that they may qualify for some assistance are glad we approached them,” he said.
After discussing the ARPA application guidelines during its May 10 meeting, the Town Council voted 6-3 against finalizing drafts in order to continue making revisions. Republican councilors Autumn Allinson, Council Chair Vincent Cervoni and Laffin voted in favor of finalizing the application guidelines.
Zandri said some councilors wanted to see the maximum number of employees a business could have to qualify lowered and for a cap on the amount an organization could receive to be added. Discussion also included giving preference to businesses which would use the money for “forward looking” recovery rather than recouping past losses.
Ryan said he has heard some frustration from businesses about the slow pace of the town’s AR
PA deliberations, however he said it’s important the the town take a measured approach to ensure that the money is spent transparently and in the most impactful manner.
“The council’s doing their job and I like to think that we’re doing ours along with them,” he said, “and we look forward to working with the council on an outcome that works for everybody that’s been impacted by Covid.”
Reporter Devin Leith-Yessian can be reached at [email protected]