BARNSTABLE — The two branches of Barnstable County’s government have been at odds for nearly a year about how $41.37 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds should be distributed. After a series of steps forward over the last few weeks, the two groups appear to be once again at a stalemate.
Last May, more than $20 million in ARPA funds arrived in the county. The money has still not been allocated. The second half of the funding is set to arrive by June. At issue is whether and how much of the funds should go to regional projects versus individual towns.
The Assembly of Delegates, the county’s legislative branch, recently approved an ordinance to give out $20 million from the fund directly to the county’s 15 towns. That move doubled the amount the Board of County Commissioners, the executive branch, wanted to channel in that direction.
Last week, the county commissioners, visibly riled by the assembly’s plan, vetoed it.
The county commission then put out a press release saying the assembly’s $20-million ordinance would divert all the ARPA money thus far received directly to the towns, leaving nothing for oversight or “critical funding to address any of Cape Cod’s regional issues — such as aiding the Cape’s economic recovery, improving the region’s public health, or addressing groundwater contamination affecting our ponds, lakes, and streams and drinking water supplies.”
To “avoid further confusion and delay in the release of ARPA funds,” the county commissioners said, they would move forward, “as it is permitted to do under state and federal law and under the terms of the grant.” They propose to open an application portal that towns could use to apply for funds. The portal process would be used to allocate only the $10 million the commissioners had proposed for direct payments to communities.
The assembly’s ordinance was aimed at getting the approximately $20 million that has been in the county’s account for nearly a year out to the towns to use for projects that are ready to go. The commission’s announcement indicated that it was done trying to work with the assembly.
The Assembly Responds
As expected, the Assembly of Delegates agenda for its March 30 meeting includes a measure to override the county commissioners’ action.
Provincetown’s delegate, Brian O’Malley, said he favored an override. “I’m sorry this has come to a head,” he wrote by email. “I think it is an embarrassment for our regional government.”
O’Malley believes that the commissioners don’t have the authority to simply distribute the money without the involvement of the assembly.
“As representatives of the towns, the assembly must play a primary role in making these determinations,” he said. “Our county charter makes the financial oversight responsibility of the assembly abundantly clear.”
An override requires a two-thirds majority vote in the assembly. That may be a tough hurdle — not because the delegates disagree on the issue but because several of them will not be able to vote due to conflict-of-interest rules.
The votes of the assembly’s delegates are weighted according to their towns’ populations. As a result, the Barnstable delegate wields nearly 21 percent of the total, while Truro’s vote counts for less than one percent.
A two-thirds majority requires at least 67 percent of the total weighted votes.
Falmouth delegate Douglas Brown resigned from the assembly last week because he chairs his town’s select board and had received an opinion from the state Ethics Commission that votes related to the ARPA money create a conflict of interest for him. Falmouth’s weighted vote equals 14.61 percent of the total.
The Falmouth Select Board could quickly appoint a replacement for Brown, which is what Brown, the chair, hopes will happen. Since the assembly has 14 days to act on the commissioners’ veto, the vote could conceivably be delayed until Brown is replaced.
The assembly’s deputy speaker, Mary Chaffee, has recused herself from votes on ARPA because she is on Brewster’s select board. Delegate George Slade told the Independent in an email that he will recuse himself as well until his term on the Bourne Select Board expires in May. Thomas O’Hara, a member of Mashpee’s select board, may also recuse himself, based on the opinion of the Ethics Commission.
Without the votes of delegates from those large towns it will be difficult to achieve the super majority needed to override the county commission. And if Falmouth doesn’t replace Brown, it will be impossible.
Opinions on ARPA
Some Outer Cape municipal leaders clearly favor the assembly’s approach.
“We made it clear to the county that we would like the funds distributed to the town,” wrote Eastham Town Administrator Jacqui Beebe by email. “This very long and convoluted process is frustrating, as the money sits in the county coffers. Our position was, please just decide and make the process as simple as possible.”
Beebe said Eastham has prioritized addressing stormwater runoff into ponds and is ready to begin work.
Truro’s delegate, Sallie Tighe, said there has been enough debate. “We have the funds to do things,” Tighe said by phone. “We should be on roller skates and take care of business.”
The select board in Truro sent a letter to the county commissioners in December saying it would like funds to address local wastewater needs and to improve broadband in town. “Being connected and digitized is essential to our public safety and economic opportunities,” the board wrote.
Truro Town Manager Darrin Tangeman said that the town’s needs related to water and wastewater, as well as broadband, could also be addressed by a regional project.
David Dunford, the assembly delegate from Orleans, said he strongly supports sending the first $20 million to the towns, particularly because the county is getting a total of $41 million. “The town leaders have indicated to me that Orleans has many shovel-ready projects that fit the ARPA criteria,” Dunford said. Some of those will be brought before town meeting voters in May, he noted.
Saying that he was speaking for himself, Wellfleet Select Board chair Ryan Curley said he was disappointed that the commissioners and assembly have not been able to find a compromise. He wants at least some of the ARPA funds to go directly to towns, with each getting a base amount and then a supplement based on population.
Recovery funds previously sent directly to the town were put into its affordable housing trust, Curley said. “The need is vast, and that use is well suited from both a regional and local perspective,” he said.
Assembly Speaker Patrick Princi, Barnstable’s delegate, doesn’t want the dispute to end up in court, which would cost both branches money. He wants to continue using the ordinance process. “Maybe we can look into a compromise to work things out,” he said. Princi called the commissioners’ veto “a sour-grapes mentality.”
Such disagreements happen all the time at the state level, Princi said. Legislators then work out a compromise with the governor, he said. A compromise can still be reached through the ordinance process, the speaker added.
Weighted Voting in the Assembly of Delegates
The populations of towns in Barnstable County vary widely. Each town has one member in the Assembly of Delegates, but their votes are weighted. Thus the Barnstable delegate’s vote counts more than 22 times as much as the Truro delegate’s. The four Outer Cape towns together have 5.86 percent of the vote; while Yarmouth, Falmouth, and Barnstable together have 46.55 percent. —Christine Legere