State and local leaders convened on Zoom to discuss the American Rescue Plan. Pictured are (top row, l-r) MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith; Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito; (middle row, l-r) Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services; Heath Fahle, special director for federal funds at the Executive Office of Administration and Finance; (bottom row) Jana Ferguson, assistant commissioner at the Department of Public Health and Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Department of Public Health.

With preliminary guidance and other details from the U.S. Treasury Department likely a couple weeks away, state and local officials, during their regular conference call, explored what is currently known about the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the $350 billion it dedicates to state, county and municipal governments.

Heath Fahle, special director for federal funds at the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, said allocation estimates for each city and town released by the MMA on March 12 are the best information available until the Treasury releases actual allocation amounts, but he concurred with the MMA’s cautionary note that the numbers should be used only for general planning purposes because they may change.

The MMA analysis is based on projection work done by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight, which used 2019 data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Community Development Block Grant formula for federal fiscal 2020. Fahle said the CDBG formula for fiscal 2021 is now available, and “there’s a chance” that 2020 Census data could be used, which might alter final allocation amounts.

“It’s important to remember that those numbers are preliminary,” he said, while adding that he “wouldn’t expect them to change materially.”

Fahle identified the four eligible use categories for the Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund as outlined in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021:
• Response to the public health emergency or its negative economic consequences
• Provision of premium pay to eligible workers (as designated by the local chief municipal official)
• Revenue replacement (relative to fiscal 2019 local revenue figures)
• Investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure

Fahle called the first use “probably the most flexible opportunity for use of the funds.” He said more guidance and definitions are needed before he could say more about revenue replacement.

Half of the allocations would come within about 90 days, he said, and the second half would be released not less than 12 months later. The covered period runs from March 3 of this year through Dec. 31, 2024.

“I think it’s fair to say that we’re closer to the beginning of this exercise than the end,” he said. “There are very many open questions that the federal government will still need to provide us with some context around, and some definitions.”

Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services, said additional federal guidance is needed about how the federal aid needs to be accounted for. One large question, he said, is whether the funds need to be appropriated, by a town meeting or city council, or can be spent like a grant.

The American Rescue Plan Act directs a substantial portion of Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to counties because county governments in much of the country provide an array of direct services to residents. But in Massachusetts, eight of the 14 county governments have been abolished, and the remaining six are not responsible for local services. The MMA worked with the National League of Cities, the Baker-Polito administration and the Massachusetts congressional delegation to ensure that Massachusetts did not get shortchanged because counties are less active here, and a hybrid approach emerged.

Where county governments have been abolished (Berkshire, Essex, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire, Middlesex, Suffolk and Worcester), the state will receive the federal aid designated for those counties and redistribute it to cities and towns based on each municipality’s percentage of its county population.

Where county governments remain (Barnstable, Bristol, Dukes, Nantucket, Norfolk and Plymouth), the counties will retain control of the designated funds, and local officials will need to work with their county officials to make sure the funds are available for local government priorities.

Fahle said his office has been in contact with officials in the six active counties and, pending additional federal guidance, is prepared to work with county officials should they choose to reallocate funds to their cities and towns.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito pointed out that officials in the six active counties “are responsible for the full accounting of all those funds.”

In addition to the state and local aid component, the American Rescue Plan Act provides additional funding for education programs, COVID testing, contact tracing, vaccinations, child care, and rental and mortgage assistance, among other objectives. Fahle said there will be a number of “funding streams that are flowing into the Commonwealth through a variety of different paths.”

Vaccine updates
While the state recently passed the milestone of having 1 million individuals fully vaccinated, Polito said the constrained vaccine supply continues to present challenges. She said federal officials have indicated that supplies will increase toward the end of this month. When they do, she said, the seven Mass Vaccination sites will reach their full capacity, and the 17 approved regional collaboratives, which are used to close geographic gaps, “is where we will see growth.”

She said planning is underway to add the regional collaboratives to the online vaccine preregistration system. Jana Ferguson, assistant commissioner at the Department of Public Health, said this development will enhance the ability of residents to book appointments that are closest to their home.

Ferguson added that the DPH has received additional proposals for regional collaboratives, which are being reviewed and approved on a rolling basis. The DPH is prioritizing sites that would close access gaps geographically and those that would help to address below-average vaccination rates in certain areas.

On the topic of vaccinating those who are unable to leave their homes, even with assistance, to reach a vaccine site — an area where the state is seeking help from municipalities — Ferguson said the DPH has been working with local boards of health on this issue for a few weeks. All municipalities were surveyed to determine whether they wanted to do in-home vaccinations themselves for their homebound residents or have a state vendor administer the vaccines. Just under half of communities (166) chose to manage their own program, and the remaining 185 health departments opted to have the state vendor do it.

The DPH today issued guidance for the homebound vaccine program and launched a Homebound Vaccination Program central intake line, available Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., at 833-983-0485. Ferguson said the DPH has developed a screening tool to determine who is eligible for the program.

Municipal CEOs have been speaking directly with the administration and top state officials about issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic since last March in regular conference calls convened by the MMA. More than 150 local officials participated in today’s call, which was the 33rd in the series. The calls are currently being held biweekly.

American Rescue Plan Act of 2021: March Primer (updated March 24) – Executive Office for Administration and Finance
Audio of March 23 call with administration (39M MP3)

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