NORWALK, Conn. — Top-level City staff have come up with recommendations for spending the $39 million Norwalk is receiving from the American Rescue Plan, the federal funding meant to aid communities recover from COVID-19.
The proposals, including extensive flooding mitigation, grants to businesses and nonprofits, and Wall Street infrastructure improvements, were unveiled at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting as a surprise – at least to the public – as they were made during Mayor Harry Rilling’s remarks, so, not on the agenda.
During that, Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz revealed that the City has $4 million more than advertised in this year’s budget, as changes made to the State’s formula for “PILOT” funding in March were “unbudgeted.” That may mean that Norwalk has $8 million more to work with in ARP funds through the next fiscal year than budgeted.
City Chiefs based their ARP recommendations on three to five years of community feedback obtained through “16 different outreach efforts, including POCD (Plan of Conservation and Development) sessions, bi-weekly community providers conversations, East Norwalk TOD meetings and MLK Corridor Initiative talks, Norwalk Chief of Economic and Community Development Jessica Vonashek said.
That feedback resulted in more than 150 projects and initiatives being considered, and then staff worked through other funding sources, including $3 million in MLK Corridor grant money and $3.5 million paid by GGP as part of getting The SoNo Collection approved, she said. HUD (United States Department of Housing and Urban Development) money and approved capital budget funding are also in the mix.
“The exciting news is that more than 90% of those 150 projects, we believe that we have funding for,” Vonashek said. It’s “huge” because not only with the ARP and capital budget funds be capitalized on, but the City can leverage “the different funding sources to bring even more money into the city.”
“One of the things that has held us up on being able to move forward on spending some of the MLK money or the GGP money is that there were so many things that people wanted to do and there wasn’t enough money to do it and it was very hard to determine how to prioritize them,” Norwalk Chief of Staff Laoise King said. “But with this additional pot of money, it’s going to allow us to do almost everything that’s been identified.”
Each project will go through a public process for Council approval, Vonashek and King said.
The funds remain available through Dec. 31 2024 and projects must be completed by the end of 2026, Dachowitz said. This operates backwards of other grants, as the money is awarded and then extensive reporting is sent to the federal government for approval of the expenditures.
Approved uses are:
- To respond to the public health emergency or its negative economic impacts, including assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits, or aid to impacted industries such as tourism, travel, and hospitality
- To respond to workers performing essential work during the COVID-19 public health emergency by providing premium pay to eligible workers
- For the provision of government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue due to the COVID–19 public health emergency relative to revenues collected in the most recent full fiscal year prior to the emergency.
- To make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.
About $15 million would be spent on flood mitigation, though not evenly divided over three years as plans must first be drawn, Norwalk Chief of Operations and Public Works Anthony Robert Carr said.
“This isn’t going to be done overnight. This is going to take a lot of planning but we’re definitely five steps ahead, I think, than many other municipalities,” given that a flooding study was underway and is almost complete.
“This is great,” Carr said. “We didn’t anticipate this, but we’re not complaining, either. So we will do everything we can to expedite, and really look into these studies so that there’s a meaningful difference in the shortest period of time. But we don’t want to do band aids, we don’t want to just rush something and that’s not going to work just for the sake of doing it because then it comes back tenfold to harm everyone here.”
On another front, “We are exploring is high speed internet for the entire city,” Dachowitz said. “… It’s a challenge, because the costs are very high. But this is a unique time in U.S. history, where the federal government is not just endorsing it, but they’re offering grants for 10s of millions of dollars. That would require a public/private partnership with a private company that would work with us on designing the network and explaining how we would implement that. The government wants to avoid allocating funds, and then nothing getting built.”
For community services, grants of $20,000 to $50,000 would be awarded following “very strict guidelines,” Norwalk Chief of Social Services Lamond Daniels said. “There’s a whole array of requirements so that we can vet and ensure that the organizations that receive funding, not only are they serving Norwalk because but they’re making an impact.”
- Eviction prevention
- Homelessness interventions
- Behavioral and mental health
- Early education and childhood
- Workforce initiatives
- Organizational support
- Youth violence prevention
Proposed programs include:
- Continuation of Family Navigator Program
- Expand Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment and Violence Prevention Programs
- Youth Services Care Coordination Model
- Library improvements
It’s also thought that ARP money could be used to improve ventilation in Norwalk’s health clinic.
About $4.5 million would be used “just for retention and growth of small businesses along with job retention and new employment opportunities,” Vonashek said. That includes COVID-impact support, a focus on business run by women and minorities and seed money for new businesses.
Wall Street infrastructure improvements fall under support for businesses and, “This is an opportunity for us to be able to implement the restructuring and reconfiguration of Wall Street, looking at the sidewalks, looking at the roadways, looking at historical lighting,” Vonashek said.
“Next we are looking at environmental sustainability,” Vonashek said. “We have approximately $2 million proposed for this particular initiative.”
This includes planting trees and a tree inventory. A Climate Action Plan would “make sure that we have a short term and long-term plan to be able to address” environmental sustainability, she said. Sidewalk construction would help connect neighborhoods “and that will also play a role in the environmental sustainability piece.”
About $1.5 million would be spent on government effectiveness and efficiency.
“Really excited about this one too because we know that, saving time and saving money just helps the city of Norwalk not only the city itself but also the businesses that are out there,” Vonashek said. “…One of the things we’ve been talking about quite a bit is the online permitting and licensing.”
“I think we’re really striving for here is to be able to ensure that someone at home can submit an application,” she said. “That application can go through the full permitting and licensing process.”
The user could check on the permit from their home and once it’s approved, receive it via email.
Records would be digitized as well, and offered to the public through a access portal.
And, a 311 customer service platform would establish a “feedback loop” in City Hall to enhance responses. The public health data system would be enhanced.
Lastly, the City would hire someone to help manage and report the ARP funds.
The proposals received accolades from some Council members.
Lisa Shanahan (D-District E) called the presentation “actually fantastic” and said, “you seem to have covered all of the important bases that our city really needs to cover.” She’s “delighted” by the tree plan.
“It was clear that a lot of thought and energy went to proposal and while I’m looking forward to the actual details when they come out I was particularly heartened to see the additional funds put towards flooding,” Tom Livingston (D-District E) said.
“The need for climate action in our city is greater than ever,” Dominique Johnson (D-At Large) said. “…It’s also really heartening for me that we’re using this, these funds now not just to do triage and recovery, but to also try to make that a part of what we can down” to the folks who are children and grandchildren now.
Darlene Young (D-District B) lauded the possible internet connectivity and Diana Révolus (D-District B) agreed with her that it would be good to address Water Street flooding.
“This is really a great opportunity, it might be an opportunity we may not see again in our lifetime,” Greg Burnett (D-At Large) said. “And I’m especially excited about the assistance that will be given to community business and nonprofit organizations to get initiatives off the ground that they might want always thought about but could never afford.”
Johnson asked Dachowitz to clarify that American Rescue Plan funds are not being used to offset tax revenue.
Taxes were kept level through the planned use of ARP funds but now that the PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) money is in the budget, more of the ARP funds can go to the specified projects, Dachowitz explained.
“Everybody’s had suffering through COVID. By reducing the tax increases everyone benefits,” Dachowitz said.
In April, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella called the City’s budget strategy “fiscally irresponsible,” charging that the City was using pandemic relief money to fund ordinary expenses and NPS wouldn’t be able to meet the escalating needs of students who have fallen behind due to COVID-19.
King told the Council members Tuesday that the City wants to get started with the plan as soon as possible, given the deadlines.
“It took the feds a while to get guidance out about what these funds could be used for and we wanted to be sure that we were going to be using them appropriately,” King said. “So we want them out into the hands of the people that need it the most as fast as possible.”
“There’s no perfect plan. There’s only perfect planning, and as you go forward situations change, and the plan can change as we move forward, there could be something else that needs to be funded and other things that might not need to be funded,” Mayor Harry Rilling said. “This is a plan that’s meant to be flexible and fluid and we can make some changes as we go along. The big thing will be the reporting, and we will be keeping the Council briefed, as we do our reporting.”
Updated, 12:21 p.m.: Information added.
Photo added early Thursday.