Mayors from across the United States said in 2020 they were worried that the pandemic was going to lead to significant budget cuts for things like education, parks and transportation. A year later, the 2021 Menino Survey of Mayors found that most city executives are looking to make “transformative” investments with federal aid.

jack spillane column

The annual Menino Survey produced by Boston University’s Initiative on Cities compiled responses from the leaders of 126 American cities and reported that 78 percent of mayors see the $65 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funding for cities as money that “will allow them to accomplish transformative aims” that might have been politically impossible otherwise. Eighteen percent are eyeing the ARPA money “to fill gaps in normal expenditures.”

The city of New Bedford experienced significant revenue shortfalls during the pandemic. But most of it was made up by new education monies the state sent the city resulting from passage of the Student Opportunity Act.

New Bedford and other cities lobbied the state to treat that money as separate from the city’s general operating budget, but the state refused. The result was that the city’s pandemic-related revenue shortfall was only $1.2 million.

Mayor Jon Mitchell has informed the City Council he intends to use some of the $64 million in ARPA funds to offset that shortfall. The council has not yet voted to either accept the ARPA funds or to authorize their expenditure for specific purposes.

Otherwise, Mitchell has recommended the city spend the money in the following categories:

  • $8 million for health, safety and wellbeing
  • $13 million for neighborhood stabilization and housing
  • $8 million for small business support
  • $11 million for enhancement to open space
  • $6 million for water, wastewater and stormwater projects
  • $18 million for arts, culture, hospitality and tourism
  • $7 million for matching funds for strategic investments
  • $1.2 million for revenue replacement
  • $1.5 million for administration.

Mitchell has said he is open to compromise with the council, which is currently debating how to accept the ARPA funds. The mayor has already confirmed he is willing to lower the $18 million figure for arts, culture, hospitality and tourism to $15 million and increase other areas.

Advocates for affordable housing have lobbied the mayor to make housing the city’s highest priority for the funds, but he has said even if you spent the entire $82 million that may be available, it would not solve the problem.

Around the U.S., mayors have described lofty plans, according to responses in the survey.

“I want to take these one-time dollars … and we want to do something very un-sexy … pay it forward to our kids and grandkids, in terms of really shoring up our infrastructure, in terms of transportation, transit investment, trails, those things, and then also the water infrastructure, which is usually a politically tougher thing to do because elected officials like to do something shiny and say, ‘I did that,’ so fixing a water treatment plant isn’t exactly the sexiest thing, but that’s exactly what I think these one-time dollars are for,” said one mayor quoted in the Menino Survey.

Of the mayors who are looking to make major investments with ARPA money, homelessness was the leading issue that city leaders (21%) said they wanted to address. Transportation infrastructure (18%) and social services (15%) rounded out the top three areas of potential investment. Police and fire (4%), childcare (4%), sustainable development (2%), and education (2%) were the least-mentioned investment targets.

Massachusetts cities and towns received $3.4 billion in direct support from ARPA, and local leaders told Baker administration officials late last year that they wanted, wherever possible, to piggyback off state spending when they put their own ARPA allotments into action.

Gov. Charlie Baker in December signed a law deploying $2.55 billion in ARPA money while preserving a little more than $2.3 billion in federal ARPA funds for future use.

New Bedford Light reporter and columnist Jack Spillane contributed to this report.

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