Money from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 is already flowing into most cities and towns across Massachusetts. But not on Cape Cod.
That’s because most of the county governments in the Bay State were abolished between 1997 and 2000. Barnstable County is one of just five counties remaining where the designation means more than mere geography.
Here on Cape Cod, $41.3 million in ARPA funds will be allocated through the county. The process of determining how that money will be distributed put the two branches of county government — the Assembly of Delegates and the County Commission — which generally work well together, at odds for a period of weeks.
The $41.3 million, which Mary Chaffee, deputy speaker of the Assembly of Delegates, has referred to as “a literal pot of gold,” is more than double the county’s annual budget. No wonder it provoked what, in a phone interview, Provincetown’s delegate Brian O’Malley called “a schoolyard fight.”
“We all know we have to work really hard to explain the value of county government,” said Chaffee during the debate on the process for allocating the money.
County Commissioner Sheila Lyons, who lives in Wellfleet, went a step further, urging the groups to work quickly to settle on a process and saying that if distribution of funds were held up “because people can’t get their acts together,” the government could take the money back.
Still, both bodies hired attorneys to draw up proposals for how the money should be distributed. The County Commission hired attorney James Lampke, an expert on government charters, to provide advice. Attorney Robert Troy has been advising the Assembly. The cost of that advice isn’t known, since the county has not yet been billed for it, according to spokesperson Sonja Sheasley.
The dust has now settled, it appears. Based on a vote by the Assembly on Dec. 15, the county’s so-called ordinance process will be followed for distributing the funds.
Towns as well as other entities, such as nonprofit organizations, will be able to submit applications for funding via an online portal early this year.
These submissions will be reviewed by a yet-to-be-appointed advisory committee of volunteers. The advisory committee will send its recommendations to the County Commission, which will in turn forward its recommendations in the form of ordinances to the Assembly of Delegates. Following a public hearing, the Assembly will vote on which of the ordinances to adopt. A 30-day waiting period follows. The County Commission can then write the checks.
Federal officials established broad categories for use of the funds, and county leaders have named water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure projects as their top priorities. Other priorities include public health, addressing economic harms of the pandemic, and making up for lost public sector revenue.
Assembly Speaker Patrick Princi of Barnstable said that he anticipated that some of the county money would be used for regional projects, and the rest could be distributed to the towns. According to Princi, state Sen. Julian Cyr recently told the Assembly there may be state money for regional projects like water quality and broadband. The county could hold back some of the ARPA allotment in anticipation of combining it with state money.
While members of the County Commission and the Assembly worried that their spat could prompt people to question the value of county government, Chaffee said there has historically been no talk of abolishing Barnstable County government. Other counties in Massachusetts were abolished “due to corruption and inefficient bureaucracy” in many cases, she said.
“Cape Cod regional government, because of its track record of public support and fiscal competence, was established as the only bicameral [two-branch] county government in the state through our home rule charter in 1988,” Chaffee said. “Many of the rural Cape towns could not provide the services that the county can do efficiently.”
Barnstable County’s services to its communities run the gamut from regional planning, bulk purchasing, dredging, tick monitoring, and pest management to Narcan distribution, homelessness programs, food security, and emergency planning.
The Administration and Finance Federal Funds Office listed the amounts that the towns in Barnstable County would have received had the $41.3 million been divided among them rather than put in the hands of county officials for distribution. Allotments were based on population: Eastham would have received nearly $952,933 from the county pot, Provincetown $575,140, Wellfleet $529,105, and Truro $390,030.