Danbury-area leaders unsure how to use federal COVID-19 relief: 'More questions than answers'

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Danbury-area towns are receiving initial allocations from the federal government’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, but officials are looking for direction as to how best to use the funds.

Several towns are convening working groups to help them determine community needs and how the money can be used.

Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi said he is forming a committeefrom the boards of finance, selectmen and education to explore spending possibilities. The town has received about $3.6 million, which is roughly half of its total allotment from the package, which Congress approved in March.

Bethel, which has not yet received any funding, and New Fairfield, which was allotted about $2 million, are creating similar advisory groups.

“We’re at the very beginning of the process,” New Fairfield First Selectwoman Patricia Del Monaco said.

Towns want to ensure their choices align with the rules defined in the relief package and the money is used wisely.

The money, which must be obligated by 2024 and spent by 2026, comes with guidelines called the “interim final rule,” provided by the federal Treasury Department. If a town fails to use the money in accordance with the Treasury’s guidance, it could have to repay the funds spent.

Redding First Selectwoman Julia Pemberton said each time more guidance is provided, “more questions than answers are the result.”

“On the one hand, we have a Treasury guideline document that provides very specific parameters for funding, and on the other hand the ‘experts’ tell us there is a lot of wiggle room,” she said.

For now, towns generally understand they can put the funding toward COVID-19 response expenses or projects entailing water, sewer, broadband and infrastructure improvements.

But as questions arise around the vague guidance, officials have leaned on professional organizations such as the Western Council of Governments.

Francis Pickering, executive director for the organization known as WestCOG, said his group and towns can’t answer “many” questions because of “gray areas” in the guidance.

Similarly, municipalities do not know if the federal government will choose to monitor the funds as they are used or conduct audits later.

“Municipalities are concerned about the process to follow,” Pickering said.

WestCOG plans to hire a consultant to help its towns. The consultant would streamline communication about the funds’ use between towns and the federal government and confirm all documents for projects are properly submitted.

Pickering expects the federal money could pay for the consultant because guidance allows municipalities to use a portion of the funds for administrative purposes.

The state Office of Policy and Management issued a memo on June 24 strongly encouraging “multi-town activities,” including hiring a regional consultant.

Pemberton, who is the WestCOG treasurer, said she is “leaning toward a shared resource” to advise the town — a special projects manager that would be shared between Redding and others. The town has received about $1.3 million of its disbursement from the package known as the American Rescue Plan Act.

Danbury Mayor Joe Cavo is considering hiring an additional set of eyes to aid the city and a yet-to-be-appointed committee.

“These are just discussions at this time,” he said. “No decisions have been made. Any cost would need to be evaluated before pursuing.”

Despite the uncertainty, town leaders have started identifying potential uses for the money.

First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker said Bethel would think about using the funds toward expanding the Clarke Business Park to bring more jobs to town. Similar to Redding and New Fairfield, he’d like to see the money be put toward improving air quality in town buildings and schools, as well as parks and recreation programming for children.

Both Del Monaco and Pemberton have considered providing payments to front-line workers directly affected by the pandemic.

“We want to make as big an impact as possible, help as many people as possible,” Knickerbocker said.