How to spend $6.4M in federal COVID funds? Darien looks around CT to get ideas and ‘copy them shamelessly’

Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky speaking at the State of the Town Meeting.

Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky speaking at the State of the Town Meeting.

contributed photo/Darien TV79

DARIEN — The town is gearing up to distribute its $6.4 million windfall in COVID-19 relief money, long-awaited funding that is part of the trillion-dollar American Rescue Plan.

During Monday’s Board of Selectmen meeting, Selectman Jon Zagrodzky said a newly-formed ARPA committee has been tasked with coming up with recommendations for spending the funds to combat local harm caused by COVID-19.

The money comes nearly two years after the pandemic shuttered businesses and put a strain on both private and public sectors.

“We need to arrive at these recommendations in a way that the public views as thoughtful, transparent and fair,” said Zagrodzky, who will be leading the committee for the next several months.

The funding comes with a set of broad spending categories: Municipalities can use it to address negative impacts from the pandemic; to aid essential workers; to provide government services; and to invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

During the committee’s second meeting Tuesday, Zagrodzky told members they were in the “idea generation” phase of the project, asking members to brainstorm uses for the money.

Already, some municipalities have begun distributing their funds. The town of East Windsor has opened its grant program for businesses and nonprofits, which could serve as an example for a similar program in Darien, he said.

“I would encourage extreme plagiarism,” Zagrodzky quipped during the committee meeting. “If somebody else is doing a good job with ideas or deploying these funds, we want to copy them shamelessly.”

Town officials are aiming to present their recommendations for where the money should be spent early this spring. Several members mentioned April 1 as the target completion date of the committee’s work.

From there, the Board of Selectmen and the Representative Town Meeting will need to approve the recommendations before the money can be distributed.

Mike Muszynski, the state and federal relations manager for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, urged transparency in allocation during Tuesday’s committee meeting.

Muszynski said because the money did not come as the result of a specific request, but rather in response to COVID-19, the onus is on municipalities to adhere to the rules around the process as outlined by the federal government.

The money can only fund programs or initiatives meant in some way to address a harm brought about by the pandemic. It cannot be used for economic development, or to fund things like pensions and legal settlements, Muszynski said.

“I know some communities have looked at using some of these funds toward developing downtown or developing certain areas within their town based on existing economic development plans,” Muszynski said. “To ensure you’re in compliance, you really need to look at it from a recovery aspect — what type of economic harm was caused by COVID. And how will these funds address that harm?”

The money cannot be used to reimburse the town for previous public health expenses incurred during earlier days of the pandemic, Muszynski told committee members. But it can be used for prospective programs, such as vaccination incentives or quarantine cost mitigation strategies.

Funding can also be used to offset potential overuse of some facilities, like public parks, that happened during COVID-19.

There was some discussion during Tuesday’s meeting of using the money to address mental health needs in town. What that would look like is still up in the air, officials said.

Darien has already received half of its allocation, with the rest coming in June. Municipalities have until 2026 to spend their funds.