The rural infrastructure assistance program would provide $3 million for towns to get help applying for federal aid

Currier’s Quality Market in Glover has reopened under new ownership. Seen on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Orleans County town of Glover has a population of just 1,070 people, according to the 2020 Census. Prior to the pandemic, its town government consisted of a three-person selectboard, a town clerk and a handful of smaller roles.

So when the town became eligible for more than $300,000 in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, it didn’t have a town official with the time and expertise to manage its spending. Then-selectboard member Brian Carroll stepped down from his role to become the town’s part-time administrator. 

“It’s a good-bad scenario. The good scenario is, wow, we’ve got this money. The bad scenario is, how do we decide how to use it?” Carroll said. 

But other small Vermont communities may struggle to obtain this support, state officials and rural legislators say. More than 100 of the 247 towns in Vermont have no town manager or administrator, according to data from the state Agency of Administration.

In his budget address on Jan. 5, Gov. Phil Scott pitched a plan to allocate $3 million to help rural communities tap into more than $1 billion in the federal pool of aid for infrastructure and Covid relief.

The Rural Infrastructure Assistance Program, included in the governor’s budget adjustment bill, would be run by the Agency of Administration and target communities that have few people, few government officials, and high social or economic needs — what the agency called Vermont’s “underserved communities.”

“Smaller, under-resourced communities, often powered by volunteers, are lacking the capacity to identify priority projects, submit applications, and then actively manage projects and corresponding reporting should funding be awarded,” Scott said in a white paper about the proposal. “The cumulative effect is that, despite our best efforts, we continue to see more resources being placed in Northwestern Vermont compared to other parts of the state.”

To illustrate his point, the governor pointed out in his policy proposal that only two projects each have been funded in Essex and Grand Isle counties, while Chittenden County has funded 47 projects. (That works out to about the same number by population: about three projects per 10,000 people for all three counties.)

Prompted by a federal executive order that recommended “underserved communities” be prioritized for funding, the Agency of Administration created an index that would put about 61 Vermont communities in that category.

The state legislature’s Rural Caucus expressed support for the governor’s proposal in a statement on Thursday. Caucus member Rep. Katherine Sims, D-Craftsbury, told VTDigger that federal aid has highlighted a longstanding problem in small towns: limited resources to make changes. 

“(Getting) money out there isn’t the only problem,” she said. “You’ve also got to have a community that has the capacity to access that money and to move the project forward.”

If the town has a certain need — for example, a new child care center or water infrastructure — first officials must figure out, “‘What are we doing? Where are we doing it? What is it going to cost?’” she said. 

“It takes time and energy to identify the various grant programs or other resources that can help support a project,” Sims said. “Then you gotta write the grant. And it still doesn’t stop there. You gotta then have somebody who has the time and capacity to manage the implementation of that project — hiring the contractors overseeing the project, dealing with the inevitable bumps that one encounters as one’s doing the work, all the way to successful completion.”

Douglas Farnham, deputy commissioner of the Agency of Administration, said the agency would compile a list of vendors that towns could use to help them evaluate grant options and submit an application. 

Scott’s proposal included four categories of projects that would qualify for assistance, based on federal aid eligibility: water quality, housing development, community recovery and workforce development, and climate change mitigation. Other projects related to community development might also be eligible.

The House Appropriations Committee plans to hear from the agency and from regional planning commissions about the proposal next week, according to the committee vice chair, Rep. Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury. She said it was “too early to tell” if the committee would support the proposal.

In Glover, some of the federal aid dollars have already been allocated toward broadband and digitizing land records. Carroll said the town was in the process of polling residents on whether to support three new projects: new security cameras, town hall upgrades or a new pickleball court.

He said it’s been “somewhat of a painful process” to take all the good ideas coming from residents and create a consensus. As town administrator, he’s helped post information on the town website and had ongoing conversations with local officials. 

“I would say it’s going well, but it again illustrates a role that the town has not had before, in terms of — new money, what do we do? How do we spend it?” he said. 

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