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Norwich starts planning how to use $21 million in federal COVID-19 relief aid

Norwich — The city expects to receive a $10 million check from the U.S. Treasury soon, but city officials are still studying the 151-page rule book governing how to spend the first half of the $21 million allocated to the city through the American Rescue Plan.

City Manager John Salomone said Wednesday he had hoped the guidelines from the U.S. Treasury would be more specific in instructing municipalities how they can spend the millions in COVID-19 recovery funding being funneled directly to them. Instead, after stating that cities and towns cannot use the funding to pay down pension debt or reduce property taxes, the report is less specific in most categories.

The funding is stretched over two years, but if a city dedicates a certain amount for a long-term capital project, that project does not have to be completed within the two years, Salomone said.

Unlike most federal grants, the city will not have to seek approval and reimbursement for each intended project. Instead, half the funding will be released up front, and Salomone already submitted paperwork to receive the first approximately $10 million in funding.

Allowable expenses include infrastructure investments, assistance to small businesses harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, support for tourism, job training and assistance to low-income families. But Salomone hopes to learn more specifics before committing any local funding. Do infrastructure improvements go beyond the stated water, sewer and roads? Does tourism investment include the city’s plan to create a heritage park at the historic Uncas Leap area?

“I want to talk to Congressman (Joe) Courtney and his staff,” Salomone said, “and start formulating general categories where I think we can spend funds.”

Local arts advocates have been lobbying for municipalities to dedicate 1% of the ARP funding to arts organizations that also have been devastated by pandemic shutdowns. Salomone hopes for confirmation on whether grants to private arts organizations would be allowed.

Within the next two weeks, Salomone, city Comptroller Josh Pothier and Corporation Counsel Michael Driscoll will review the U.S. Treasury guidelines and consult with Courtney’s staff. Then a city committee with various department heads and outside representatives will be formed to make recommendations on how to spend the city’s grant.

Although not specified in the U.S. Treasury report, Salomone plans to present the funding proposals to the City Council for review and approval.

The city will have to report quarterly to the U.S. Treasury on its progress on using the funding.

Norwich Human Services Director Lee-Ann Gomes said she has read a summary of the Treasury report and is excited at the funding potential. Her thin staff has spent the past year piecing together grants, donations and assistance from volunteers, businesses and local agencies to assist the thousands of city residents hurt by the pandemic. The Human Services office has helped pay internet connection costs and provide mobile hot spots and devices to families with children thrust into remote learning. The office has distributed donated food gift cards and helped residents apply for unemployment and other services and helped pay utility bills.

She said the ARP funding could help with all of that, as well as pay for Human Services staff dedicated to COVID-19 relief work.

“There’s just some good things in there,” she said of the report on allowed expenditures. “We’ve been discussing what we should do and what the region should do. I’m really looking forward to working on that and seeing what we can do.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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