The Rural Infrastructure Assistance Program will provide $3 million to cities for help applying for federal aid

The city of Glover in Orleans County has a population of just 1,070, according to the 2020 census. Before the pandemic, city government consisted of a three-person selection board, a town clerk, and a few smaller roles.

So when the city became eligible for more than $300,000 in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, it didn’t have a city official with the time and expertise to manage its spending. Selection board member Brian Carroll then stepped down to become the city’s part-time manager.

“It’s a good-bad scenario. The good scenario is we get this money. The bad scenario is, how do we decide how to use it?” Carroll said.

State officials and rural lawmakers say other small Vermont communities may struggle to get that support. More than 100 of Vermont’s 247 cities do not have a manager or administrator, according to data from the State Management Agency.

In his Jan. 5 budget address, Governor Phil Scott introduced a plan to allocate $3 million to help rural communities take advantage of more than $1 billion in the federal aid fund for infrastructure and COVID relief.

The Rural Infrastructure Assistance Program, included in the governor’s budget amendment bill, will be run by the management agency and will target communities with few people, few government officials, and high social or economic needs — what the agency called “Vermont’s disadvantaged communities.” “

“Small under-resourced communities, often supported by volunteers, lack the ability to identify priority projects, submit applications, and then effectively manage projects and corresponding reports if funding is awarded,” Scott said in a white paper on the proposal. “The cumulative effect is that despite our best efforts, we continue to see more resources being allocated in Northwest Vermont than in other parts of the state.”

To make his point, the governor noted in his policy proposal that only two projects were funded in Essex and Grand Isle counties, while Chittenden County funded 47 projects. (This works out with roughly the same number by population: about three projects per 10,000 people in all three counties.)

Based on a federal executive order that recommended that “disadvantaged communities” be prioritized for funding, the management agency created an index that puts about 61 Vermont communities in that category.

The state legislature’s rural caucus expressed support for the governor’s proposal in a statement Thursday. Caucus Rep. Katherine Sims, D-Craftsbury, told VTDigger that the federal aid has highlighted a long-running problem in small towns: limited resources to make changes.

“(Getting) money is not the only problem,” she said. “You also have to have a community that has the ability to access that money and move the project forward.”

If the city has a specific need—for example, a new childcare center or water infrastructure—first in charge should figure out, “What are we doing? Where are we doing it? What’s the cost?”

“It takes time and effort to identify different grant programs or other resources that could help support the project,” said Sims. Then you have to write the grant. And it still doesn’t stop there. You then have to have someone with the time and ability to manage the execution of that project—hiring contractors supervising the project, dealing with the inevitable bumps one encounters as one does the work, all the way to successful completion.”

The agency will compile a list of suppliers that cities can use to help them evaluate grant options and submit an application, said Douglas Farnham, deputy commissioner of the management agency.

Scott’s proposal included four categories of projects eligible for aid, based on eligibility for federal aid: water quality, housing development, community revitalization and workforce development, and climate change mitigation. Other projects related to community development may also be eligible.

The House Appropriations Committee plans to hear from the agency and from regional planning committees about the proposal next week, according to the committee’s vice chair, Rep. Robin Shaw, D. Middlebury. She said it was “too early to tell” whether the committee would support the proposal.

In Glover, some federal aid dollars have already been earmarked for broadband and digitization of land records. Carroll said the town was in the process of polling residents about whether it would support three new projects: new security cameras, upgrades to town hall, or a new pickleball field.

He said it was a “fairly painful process” of taking all the good ideas coming from the population and coming to a consensus. As the town’s official, he has helped publicize information on the town’s website and has had ongoing conversations with local officials.

“I would say it’s going well, but it demonstrates again a role that the city didn’t have before, in terms of — the new money, what do we do? How do we spend it?” he said.

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