Haverhill Ponders How to Spend $38.4 Million in Federal COVID-19 Relief; Awaits Rules

Haverhill City Council Vice President Colin F. LePage delivers his 2020 inaugural address. At left is City Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien. (WHAV News file photograph.)

Haverhill is in line to receive a financial windfall, but how that money can be spent is still unclear.

The American Rescue Plan Act was passed and signed into law March 11, allocating $1.9 trillion to help states, cities and individuals recover from the COVID-19 crisis. Haverhill is set to receive $38.4 million of that money, but there will be specific rules on how it can be spent and, thus far, cities have not received much guidance.

City Council Vice President Colin F. LePage told councilors the package outlined in broad terms four ways in which the money can be used.

“One, to respond to the public health emergency or its negative economic consequences. Two, provision of premium pay to eligible workers, as designated by the local chief municipal official. Three, revenue replacement relative to fiscal 2019 local revenue figures and number four, investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure,” he reported.

Regarding broadband, Councilor John A. Michitson, a long-time advocate for bringing high quality, fiber optic internet to the city, called the package a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He explained the federal aid may be used for construction of new public-private partnerships and municipal fiber networks. Council President Melinda E. Barrett said she would like to see some of the money go to roadways and a parking garage.

However, Mayor James J. Fiorentini responded some ideas do not appear to be eligible expenses. “This is not an infrastructure bill, and the only infrastructure area is water and sewer. So, we have some opportunities and we have some challenges but this is an incredible opportunity,” he explained.

The mayor said he has put together a team of department heads to consider ways to best use the money. One of them, Director of Public Works Michael K. Stankovich said the group is considering ideas, but expects it will be about two months before more detailed guidance is available.

LePage explained that unlike the previous CARES Act money, which came originally with a relatively short-term end date, this plan extends through the end of December, 2024. He said this gives the city plenty of time to determine the most productive ways to spend the money. He suggested, and the full council approved, sending a letter to the mayor requesting he work with the City Council in determining how best to spend that money.

Meanwhile, Community Development Director Andrew K. Herlihy said rule changes to the last federal aid package means the city still has just under $2 million available. Most of the earlier aid went to the schools—fixing air quality issues and buying Chromebooks for remote learning, feeding the hungry and helping out-of-work tenants avoid evictions.

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