County mulls next steps for relief funds

Commissioners work to develop policies and procedures for administering pandemic money.

County commissioners are deciding how to best allocate $3.5 million in American Rescue Act funds. Christine Todd is shown here at a meeting in 2019. — Gabrielle Mannino

The Dukes County Commission is working on defining their process and policies for administering approximately $3.5 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to towns, organizations, and entities that apply.

The federal government is providing $5.1 million to Martha’s Vineyard and Gosnold, of which $1.6 million is going to the towns to utilize as they choose within provided guidelines, and $3.5 million is designated to Dukes County to do the same.

At their monthly meeting Wednesday, commissioners discussed the criteria established by the ARPA steering committee that will govern which potential entities can apply for and receive funding.

The act itself defines four general categories of eligible uses for the grant, including responding to public health emergencies or economic impacts due to COVID-19, providing premium pay to employees providing essential work during the pandemic, and to make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.

But the steering committee is charged with evaluating individual applications, so they created criteria that require applicants to demonstrate a specific need borne from the public health emergency, the ability to mitigate those impacts, and the ability to best leverage ARPA investments by identifying matching funds, complementary state grants, or other forms of aid.

Potentially the most important element of these criteria is for any applicant to demonstrate the opportunity to make fundamental positive change at a county-wide level.

Steering committee member and commissioner Don Leopold said the charter of the committee is to develop and facilitate an approach to allocating the funds that is “open, inclusive, analytical, and driven by the best long term interests of the Island community.”

The committee has no authority over who gets grants and who doesn’t — their role is to evaluate and decide on the best potential recipients that apply, and then make recommendations to the full commission.

The commission has final say on who will receive the grant funds.

Commissioner Peter Wharton said he is eager to get the ball rolling on receiving the funds from the federal government, and determining the best approach to get the money to deserving recipients.

Before venturing forward, Wharton suggested that any language or specifics related to the county holding and distributing the funds be codified and made into official policy and procedure. 

“In common fashion, we are trying to build the plane as we are flying it,” Wharton said. 

Leopold described the next steps in the process, noting that the county will issue a request for letters of inquiry (LOI), and applicants will send in their letters with their projects they want funded.

If the applications fit within the criteria and mesh with the goals of the county to bolster and rejuvenate the Island following the statewide shutdown, that applicant will be asked to submit a full application to the steering committee to receive either a thumbs up or thumbs down.

If it’s supported, then the application goes straight to the full county commission, and is funded at the appropriate level.

Letters of inquiry should be sent to the county manager by August 30, at which point there will be a rolling admissions process with applicants that make it through the initial screening.

Applicants will then submit full applications for consideration to the steering committee by September 30, and by the end of October, the county anticipates it could actually begin to award grants. 

This year, the county will allocate $1.7 million of the overall grant, and an additional $1.7 million the following year. The county has until 2026 to allocate all the money. 

County treasurer Ann Metcalf said right now the county can receive the pool of money at any time, but they have no idea how it will be distributed. She stressed that, depending on what type of projects or initiatives that will receive funding, the amount of administrative costs to the county will rise or fall.

“We want to have that big picture brought down to a smaller picture so that we can make a budget to say, ‘Well, do we need administration or are we doing a big regional project so we don’t need to set money aside for administrative costs?’” Metcalf asked. “If you have a bunch of small projects it’s going to mean more administrative costs.”

She added that she thinks the funds should be designated as reimbursable grants.

Commissioner Tristan Israel said that the county will need to determine some sort of ranking system to determine which applicants are awarded grants, especially if they receive a lot of applications.

County remains in state of emergency

Commissioners decided to keep their state of emergency declaration in place, as the Island recently saw an uptick in COVID cases, and the Delta variant has arrived.

The county is able to make special provisions under the declaration, such as requiring people to wear masks inside county buildings, and permitting county employees to work remotely.

Commissioner Keith Chatinover said he is not comfortable with ending the state of emergency, as the COVID situation on the Island is “getting a little precarious, especially with the Delta variant on the Island now.”

County manager Martina Thornton said if the county decides to maintain the state of emergency, they can choose to be closed to the public, but can also meet to end the state of emergency at any time.

Commission chair Christine Todd said she is also concerned about the trend of COVID cases, not only here, but on the Cape.

“I am also a firm supporter of continuing to meet remotely, and I wouldn’t want to jeopardize that,” Todd said, although Thornton chimed in saying there are provisions outside of the state of emergency that would allow for commissioners to meet remotely, and require people to wear personal protective equipment in county buildings.

The vote to end the state of emergency failed, with John Cahill and Don Leopold voting yes.