Barnstable County officials are battling over who gets to decide on the distribution of $41.3 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds from the federal treasury.
The three county commissioners, including Sheila Lyons of Wellfleet, initially argued that the money is a grant, and that under state law they are solely responsible for allocating grant funds.
But the 15-member Assembly of Delegates, with one member elected from each Cape Cod town, disagreed. They said the money should be distributed under the ordinance process prescribed in the county charter, with the Assembly having the final say.
Efforts at reaching a compromise have seen options and counter-options bouncing back and forth like ping-pong balls between the two panels.
In the latest development, the Assembly unanimously voted on Dec. 15 to override a veto by the commissioners of the Assembly’s ordinance spelling out how the ARPA funds would be managed. Before that vote, the Assembly’s lawyer, Robert Troy of Sandwich, told the members that they represent the 15 towns in the county and speak for them.
“We need to look at whether the voice of the communities should be heard,” Troy said.
Mary Chaffee of Brewster, deputy speaker of the Assembly, said overriding a veto by the county commissioners was rare, “but I strongly support overriding this veto.”
At the same session, the Assembly unanimously voted to reject the commissioners’ proposal for managing the ARPA funds without allowing it to come to the floor for discussion.
$20 Million Already Received
The ARPA money comes to the county in two equal installments. The first half, over $20 million, has already arrived. The second half will be paid out in 2022.
Federal officials set broad categories for use of the funds, and County leaders have named water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure projects as top priorities. The wish list also includes public health, addressing the economic harms of the pandemic, and making up for lost public sector revenue, according to Assistant County Administrator Vaira Harik. Applicants for the money may include municipalities, nonprofit organizations, and several other entities.
The three county commissioners are elected to four-year terms in countywide votes. The current chair is Ron Bergstrom of Chatham, Lyons is vice chair, and the third member is Mark Forest of South Yarmouth. They prepare the county budget, appoint the county administrator and other employees, and oversee disbursement of funds. They can also propose ordinances for Assembly action and can veto ordinances adopted by the Assembly.
The Assembly is the county’s legislative branch; members are elected to two-year terms by their individual towns. Their votes are weighted based on the populations of their respective communities.
The Assembly can override the commissioners’ veto of an adopted ordinance via a two-thirds vote.
The commissioners initially planned to solicit applications for the ARPA money through an online portal starting early in 2022. Those would be reviewed for compliance by staff and then sent to an advisory council organized by County Administrator Beth Albert. The council’s recommendations would be reviewed by the commissioners, who would then write the checks for the ones they approved.
The Assembly of Delegates argued that the money should be allocated through ordinances proposed by the commissioners or members of the Assembly and followed by public hearings. Proposed ordinances must be adopted by the Assembly and approved by the commissioners. Following a 31-day waiting period, the ordinance goes into effect.
The commissioners at first proposed a joint process that would involve “resolutions” rather than ordinances, thereby avoiding the hearing process and the 31-day delay.
But the Assembly didn’t even discuss that proposal. Instead, it unanimously adopted an ordinance dictating that all spending of ARPA funds be done solely via ordinances.
Chaffee called it “a clean and simple method of appropriating ARPA funds. Both branches can carry out their responsibilities without a memorandum of understanding or meetings with lawyers or tabletop exercises to test a new process,” Chaffee told her colleagues. “It’s how we routinely conduct the county’s business.”
The Assembly would make sure to keep the process moving, she said. “We know these funds are needed in the towns we represent,” she said.
The commissioners vetoed the Assembly’s ordinance, objecting to a lack of specifics on the review process and the delay inherent in the ordinance process. Then they proposed their own ordinance, which was essentially the same as their earlier proposal, simply changing the word “resolutions” to “grant agreements.”
The veto was overridden, and the commissioners’ ordinance was rejected this week. Both votes were unanimous.
Commissioners Lyons and Forest had said before this week’s action that they were willing to work with the Assembly to resolve the dispute. But Bergstrom was not in a conciliatory mood.
Bergstrom said comments made by Chaffee and by Assembly Speaker Patrick Princi of Barnstable “seemed to indicate I wasted a month of their time by presenting compromises, and that they were right, we were wrong.”
Of the ordinance that had been adopted by the Assembly and sent to the commissioners, Bergstrom said, “It represents not one step in our direction; not one attempt to compromise.”
Editor’s note: This article has been revised and updated since it was published in the print edition dated Dec. 16, 2021.