BARNSTABLE — Right up until the day of the vote, it looked like the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates was going to steamroll the County Commissioners’ opposition to distributing $20 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding directly to the Cape’s 15 communities.
Then Cape Cod’s state senators, Julian Cyr and Susan Moran, showed up at the meetings of the county’s two governing boards on April 6 to urge both sides to get along.
And, with a little grumbling, they did.
At stake is $41.37 million in federal funds that the ARPA legislation directed to Barnstable County. Last May, more than $20 million arrived, but none has been allocated. A second $20-million payment is set to arrive by June.
After several months of arguments about who should decide how the money is spent, it appeared the County Commission and the Assembly were working together.
Last month, the commission sent a proposal to the Assembly allotting $10 million directly to the 15 towns in proportion to population. The Assembly doubled that amount to $20 million. Miffed, the commission vetoed the change.
The Assembly gets the final word in the back and forth, since it can override a commission veto with a two-thirds majority vote. It looked as though the Assembly was set to do just that on April 6.
Senators Weigh In
Cyr warned the commission against moving too quickly, despite complaints from town officials that the process was too slow.
“Sometimes, when we move more deliberately, we have a better result for the taxpayers,” Cyr said. “It’s clear the Assembly has wanted to see a greater share flowing to the towns. I think that’s a missed opportunity.”
The towns are getting significant cash infusions already from the short-term rental tax, Cyr pointed out, and some also have host fees from cannabis operations.
“From our perspective, distributing large amounts to the towns doesn’t make sense,” Cyr said. Instead of using the “once-in-a-generation” federal ARPA money on smaller town projects or to balance municipal budgets, it would be better to address large regional challenges such as water quality, climate change, housing, and child care. The county’s cash investment could be doubled or even tripled by matching state funding for those uses, he said.
Cyr also told the commission that “both branches of the government” should be involved in decision-making on ARPA funds. “I encourage a collaborative process,” he said.
Later in the meeting, commission chair Sheila Lyons offered an apology for the previous week’s vote by her panel to seize full control of the $41 million, set aside $10 million for the towns instead of $20 million, and open the application portal for projects. Lyons moved to rescind that vote, calling it a “mistake.”
Commissioner Ronald Bergstrom, who had supported the previous week’s decision to cut the Assembly out of the process, voted with Lyons to rescind that vote. He added the caveat that “my patience is very thin” — but noted that the patience of the Assembly was probably thin as well.
The Assembly of Delegates met a few hours after the County Commissioners. On the agenda was an override of the Commissioners’ veto of the $20-million disbursement to towns.
Cyr once again lobbied for slowing down and investing the money in regional initiatives that would attract other funding from the state.
Some delegates later said Cyr’s advice prompted them to change their votes on the override.
Five delegates spoke fervently in favor of securing the $20 million for the towns, but ultimately eight were opposed, and the override failed.
Among those who voted against the override was Speaker Patrick Princi, the Barnstable delegate, whose vote is worth 21 percent of the total in the Assembly’s weighted voting system.
Pointing to the County Commission’s action earlier in the day, Princi said arguments over distribution of the money should be set aside.
“We’ve been in the dark on a lot of this stuff, and the towns have waited for the money since last fall,” the speaker said. “But today, they made it clear they want us to be part of the process.”
Princi also praised the makeup of the regional leaders panel that will set spending priorities for the funds.
Princi said he would back off the $20 million allocation and support the original $10 million offered by the County Commission. “We’ve got a great group working with us on this,” he said, “and we have the Commissioners finally agreeing to work with us, so at this point, I’m not looking to jam $20 million and say this is how it has to be. If need be, we can file another ordinance for more money in the future.”
Voting with Princi against the override were Dennis delegate John Ohman, Eastham delegate Terence Gallagher, Wellfleet delegate Lilli-Ann Green, Provincetown delegate Brian O’Malley, Truro delegate Sallie Tighe, Harwich delegate Elizabeth Harder, and Yarmouth delegate Susan Warner. Collectively, those eight represent 50 percent of the Assembly’s weighted votes.
O’Malley said the Commissioners’ previous vote was “arrogant” and triggered an emotional response. His reaction had been “We’re not going to be pushed around like that,” he said. Cyr’s promise that ARPA spending for big regional projects could be doubled or tripled with state money convinced him that investing in regional projects was the best approach, he said.
Sandwich delegate James Killion urged his colleagues to support the override. They had the votes to do it, he argued, and the money has been sitting in county coffers for a year. Based on an 8-percent inflation rate, “We’ve lost roughly $1.6 million in buying power,” Killion said. “I hate to see the Assembly snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.”
Orleans delegate David Dunford agreed. “I still come down on the side that $20 million is very fair,” he said. Daniel Gessen, a new delegate from Falmouth, also supported the override, saying it was “in the best interest of Falmouth and the Cape” to move forward with spending.
The other votes to override were from Mashpee delegate Thomas O’Hara and Chatham delegate Randi Potash. The delegates from Bourne and Brewster did not vote.