Forty-two million dollars sounds like a pile of money. Until it gets divided up.
Across the Cape this month, the glint of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds has attracted much attention. Barnstable County will be distributing that amount, which is equal to the total already allotted to all the towns on a per-capita basis. The focus is on how best to use it for its intended purpose of alleviating the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The big question is the small-town, large-town divide. Five towns — Barnstable, Falmouth, Yarmouth, Bourne, and Sandwich — have two-thirds of the Cape’s population. A per-capita allotment means they get most of the money. It also means that our four small Outer Cape towns, with 6.8 percent of the population, would collectively receive less than $3 million. That’s not enough for any one town to do a big project.
Our Outer Cape Assembly caucus is likely to favor a proposed formula that gives each town an equal base amount with the remainder allotted by population. Regional projects could stretch those dollars by reducing redundancy.
An online survey of public opinion is open through Feb. 11 at barnstablecounty.org. Not surprisingly, respondents out here favor the equal-base approach.
How we elect to use the funds is less predictable. Within the broad categories of water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure, public health, housing, economic losses for businesses and nonprofits, education, and child care are many pressing needs. Real people, our neighbors, are having a hard time.
My priorities for the use of this windfall include helping people facing homelessness, lack of health care, or unmanageable child-care needs. Also, the restaurants and small businesses trying to stay afloat through very lean times.
I consider housing a primary need. It is a fundamental human right but one that is in impossibly short supply now. With many more people electing to live here, home prices are stratospheric and rentals are nonexistent. The market is not about to solve this problem. We need public funding and innovative development approaches if we are to have places for the people who do the work upon which we all depend.
In the face of pandemic infection, our interconnectedness has never been so apparent. But Covid has also resulted in many secondary health problems. People with mental health and substance misuse issues or chronic illnesses are among the noticeable casualties of these past two years. Strengthening the safety net assuring everyone access to necessary care will be truly a lifesaving effort.
Child care, always expensive and scarce, has become even more so, impairing working parents’ return to employment. This affects family finances, sense of well-being, and, quite likely, child development. Locally, we have made great commitments to preschool; these must be maintained and made more widely available.
Infrastructure costs are a budget stress for every town, and they are accelerating. Of course, we need clean drinking water, and we must clean up our fresh- and saltwater bodies. But these are needs we’ve been addressing for years before Covid and make a less imperative case for ARPA funds, although in Provincetown, at least, additional sewer capacity would greatly advance two large affordable housing projects.
The gnarly discussions about distribution and use of the $42 million will be a prime focus of both town and county government over the coming months. Now is the time for discussion and making your perspectives known to your town and county representatives.
Brian O’Malley, M.D., is Provincetown’s elected delegate to the Barnstable County Assembly. Write him at [email protected].