How Montclair will use its American Rescue Funds is still up in the air
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclair doesn’t expect to get final notice on the funds it’s expected to receive through the American Rescue Plan until July — too late to account for them in this year’s municipal budget.
But even the $3.79 million the township is expected to receive through 2024 wouldn’t be enough to account for steep drops in revenue in the pandemic, Mayor Sean Spiller said. U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker announced the anticipated funds in March.
This year’s proposed $93.79 million municipal budget, which was introduced on April 6 and is up for a public hearing May 4, reflects only a $78,886 increase in spending over the 2020 budget, but it also reflects a $3 million loss in revenue, causing a shortfall.
But the $3.79 million will not be enough to cover the loss of revenue due to the pandemic, said Mayor Sean Spiller.
“We could use double, triple that,” Spiller said at a town hall on April 28 with County Commissioner Brendan Gill, Chief Policy Adviser to Gov. Phil Murphy Dr. Zakiya Smith Elis and Senior Adviser to the White House Luke McGowan.
McGowan called the ARP the largest investment in local government in a generation. He said while CARES Act funding needed to be applied directly to COVID-related costs, these new funds will go directly to local communities that should have more flexibility in their use.
CARES funding went to counties with populations over 500,000 to use for regional COVID-related expenses, and could also be funneled to local communities. Essex County received $139,423,361 from the CARES Act, Gill said. The funds were used to set up COVID-19 testing and vaccine clinics, food distributions, rental assistance and small business recovery programs, as well as allocated to township programs.
Montclair received about $340,000 through the county to help with remote resource learning centers and after-school care, and roadway and sewer repairs.
Guidance for how ARP funds can be used is still being worked out through the U.S. Treasury Department, McGowan said. But they are expected to cover lost revenues due to the pandemic to maintain critical services and avoid layoffs of essential workers; provide additional assistance to residents and small businesses; and pay for investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
Essex has been among New Jersey’s hardest-hit counties in the pandemic, with highest number of COVID-related deaths (at 2,604 as of Friday, April 30) and a high job loss rate.
Gill said that working with the food distributions setup since the pandemic was sobering.
“We saw all walks of life [at the distributions]. It really hit home,” he said.
New Jersey’s unemployment rate hit 16.8% — the highest — in June 2020, according to New Jersey Labor Department data. In March 2021, Essex County’s unemployment rate remained high at 9.6%, and was the fourth highest in the state, with Cape May County the highest at 12.5%.
Elis said funding for mortgage and rent relief for homeowners, renters and landlords will continue to be a “tremendous need” that outweighed the funding for housing relief programs over the last year. Of the 15,000 New Jersey families that qualified for the rental assistance, paid directly to landlords, most were single mothers who had lost their jobs during the pandemic, according to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.
Elis said the pandemic exacerbated long-term issues with affordable childcare, women’s equality, healthcare inequity and access to mental health professionals, and that funding for long-term programming will be needed. New Jersey has also long faced a digital divide, but invested $54 million since the start of the pandemic to get students laptops and internet access. As of March, the Department of Education said all public school districts reported each of their students had the devices and connectivity to get to their classrooms online.
Another issue forced to be addressed by the pandemic is New Jersey’s aging school facilities, particularly the need for ventilation upgrades such as those Montclair is now facing. The Montclair school district is expected to receive $6.6 million in ARP funds and another $2.2 million from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund II.
Both Elis and McGowan said the American Jobs Plan — which will invest federal dollars to rebuilding America’s infrastructure and aims to create millions of jobs — could help to rebuild Montclair’s facilities. Biden’s goal is “reopening all schools, but done safely,” McGowan said.
Spiller said Montclair will “try and make investments into every part of our community.”
But for now Montclair officials are waiting for formal notification of how much its ARP funds will amount to and how that money can be directed. McGowan said that guidance will be “coming soon.”
Montclairians are expected to see a 2.48% increase in the municipal portion of a property owner’s tax bill — the first increase in three years — and will use $9,450,000 in surplus to plug its budget hole. That surplus will have to be replenished this year, and in doing so, will be crucial in keeping a municipal tax increase below 2% next year, Montclair’s financial adviser, Bob Beneke said.