SPENCER – While it’s taken longer than they’d hoped, Selectmen are close to approving a process for local business owners to collect up to $20,000 each from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding meant to offset the financial impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The town received nearly $3.6 million from the federal ARPA funds which must be earmarked for use by Dec. 31, 2024. Expenditures must be completed 2 years later.
While some communities have completed the task of allocating the funds, Spencer officials said they spent additional time working out a fair method for business owners to apply for the funding.
“We wanted to make the administration of this (program) as easy as possible,” Selectman Anthony Pepe explained.
Pepe and Selectman Jared Grigg worked together to come up with a proposal to dictate how a half-million dollars would be allocated to Spencer-headquartered businesses whose owners apply for relief.
Initially, they’d hoped to find an agency to administer the business grants and they spoke with an area bank, gathering information before realizing the town would have to handle decisions about distribution, Grigg said.
They studied how other towns had developed business grants using ARPA funds and gleaned the best parts from those programs.
Under their plan, business owners would be asked to submit 3 years of tax returns along with proof of incorporation. The tax returns will help determine the amount of loss suffered during the pandemic and will allow officials to better determine how much to award each applicant, Pepe explained.
If their plan is approved, the Finance Committee would review the applications and issue the grants.
Businesses can use the funding for a variety of things: payroll, building improvements, utilities, and debts.
Selectman Ralph Hicks said he wants to see the process expedited because some businesses are likely still incurring pandemic-related bills.
“Some people may have taken out loans,” he said.
Once the process is approved by Selectmen, applications will likely be accepted for 30 days and checks could be issued a few weeks later.
Now Grigg and Pepe have turned their attention to setting up a similar program that will allow local residents to seek some financial relief based on their income.
In addition to the two grant programs, the town has plans for ARPA money that include a sewer study, funds for remote voting at town meetings, equipment for the police department, paving the fire department parking lot, and renovations to the restroom in the fire station.
The town will also spend around $200,000 to study the “envelope” of the Richard Sugden Library which has been plagued with issues for many years. Bridges said there have been “a host of issues” with the historic building and the study will help determine the best course of action to solve those problems.
Public safety employees were among the first to benefit from the funding with full-time firefighters and police officers eligible for as much as $6,000 as premium pay for their work in high-risk positions during the pandemic, Town Administrator Jeffrey Bridges explained recently.
About $700,000 was also set aside for the demolition of the former Lake Street School which was closed in 2015 after poor air quality along with reports of mold were revealed. Estimates to repair the building topped out at more than $1 million, school committee members said at the time.
But at their August 7, 2023 meeting, Selectmen rejected bids from companies offering to tear down the building because the prices hovered at around $1 million.
Bridges said the building contains more asbestos than expected, driving up the demolition costs.
Now the board is stepping back the project in the hopes that they’ll find grant funding to cover some or all of the demolition costs.
News of the high bids upset board members, including Pepe who said the town could’ve had the property leased a few years ago but balked at spending $300,000.
“Now we’re looking at $900,000,” he said.
Bridges agreed to seek state and federal funding from grants to try to fund the demolition.