With the City of Littleton slated to receive the second-half of its $12 million in federal pandemic-relief money this June, staff have outlined a roadmap for how the funds may be used over the next …
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With the City of Littleton slated to receive the second-half of its $12 million in federal pandemic-relief money this June, staff outlined a roadmap for how the funds may be used over the next four years.
The money is part of billions in aid to states and local governments from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a federal stimulus package signed into law last March that is meant to help communities rebuild from the economic and social devastation of COVID-19.
Technology and infrastructure updates, along with investments in the police department, housing and homelessness programs are among the largest areas where Littleton city staff want to focus the money. But such large amounts of spending require caution, said City Manager Mark Relph.
“I’ve been cautious about ARPA, mostly because it wasn’t well defined in the beginning for what was eligible,” Relph said, adding it wasn’t until the beginning of this year that the federal government made it more clear how the money could be used.
“Council has been very deliberate and patient with the process,” said Littleton Mayor Kyle Schlachter. "I think it’s important that we not rush it and just spend it on the first thing that pops into mind."
Just a sliver of the funds have been spent so far, about $371,000, with the majority of that, about $256,000, spent in August to increase staff and hours at the Bemis Library and Littleton Museum that were cut down as a result of the pandemic.
On March 1, Littleton's City Council approved about $456,000 from the city’s general fund to fully restore both the museum and library to pre-pandemic-level service, shifting away from using ARPA funds.
That decision exemplifies the constraints of ARPA which, while an unprecedented sum of federal aid money, is also a one-off deal, with the money needing to be fully spent by 2026, according to federal law. For that reason, staff has elected to use the funds for one-time-only investments as opposed to services that require routine funding.
“We did feel very strongly that the funding to get the museum and library to 100% (service levels) should come from the general fund,” said Kelli Narde, city spokesperson. “Because ARPA money is temporary, we did not want to send that message to our employees or to the community that staffing of the library was temporary.”
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By Jan. 25, Littleton City Council had approved about $2.1 million in funds mostly for city-wide improvements such as creating a new website and updating security and technology systems, as well as recruitment. Some of this has already been spent, but most is currently set aside to be spent at a later date.
This left about $9.9 million, with council, during its February retreat, designating four key areas where they wanted staff to focus most of that remaining money. This was formally approved during a council meeting March 1.
Council has called for $3.4 million for technology and infrastructure, $3 million for community, $2.5 million for policing and fleet maintenance and $75,000 to create a new service.
Technology and infrastructure spending is made up of $3 million for enterprise resource planning and $400,000 for a fiber master plan.
Relph said the city has historically struggled with software and hardware investments that, because of the sheer amount of cost it takes to update, have become at times disjointed.
“We are way behind on those kinds of investments,” said Relph, who added that enterprise resource planning will centralize those tools in a way never done before. “It is expensive to make that one-time investment and shift.”
The fiber master plan will look at fiber-optic cables throughout the city to ensure essential equipment like traffic lights are operating properly and provide any needed updates or changes.
Community spending will see about $1 million for housing, $1 million for homelessness, $500,000 for businesses and $500,000 for the downtown area.
Relph called housing “one of the larger issues for our community for years to come” and said the $1 million earmarked from ARPA money could go towards helping build new affordable housing through partnerships with South Metro Housing Options.
On homelessness, Littleton has joined with Englewood and Sheridan in calling for hundreds of thousands in spending to implement a litany of solutions outlined in a regional 2021 action plan to help get people housed. That includes establishing a navigation center to connect people with services and resources, which could be funded through ARPA, according to Relph, although the dollar amounts remain murky.
Littleton’s city council recently approved a contract for a homelessness coordinator who would be paid $330,000 over three years to helm the action plan, a cost that would be shared between the three cities. Littleton will pay $132,000 towards that salary, all of which could come from ARPA.
As for businesses and Littleton’s downtown, Relph said this funding could come in the form of subsidies to help renovate historic building facades and provide business owners with opportunities to grow their operations.
For police, council has approved $1 million to purchase a new mobile command unit as well as $1.5 million to create a new separate fund account for the city’s fleets, which include police cars, snow plows and public works and inspection vehicles.
According to Police Chief Doug Stephens, the purpose of a mobile command unit is to respond to large scale emergencies, such as a barricade situation or active crime scene, as well as manage emergency responses such as when a department may have to evacuate their building during a fire.
The department’s current mobile command unit is more than 20 years old, according to Stephens.
“Really what we need is flexible technology, access to technology,” he said. "And our current command post is very limited.”
The separate fleet account has been a years-long dream of Relph’s, who said that having the city’s fleets funded through the capital projects fund, which also covers vital infrastructure maintenance, means it too often competes with other existing priorities.
While ARPA money will not fund the fleets in the long term, it is vital for jumpstarting a separate savings account, according to Relph.
“You can’t create a new fund and start replacing equipment with $0 in there,” he said.
Finally, the council approved $75,000 of ARPA money to create a new program, the book mobile.
“We have librarians who are providing outreach services to underserved communities and to the elderly that use their own vehicles and put books in the trunk of their cars,” said Narde, the city spokesperson. “What we’re trying to do is get a vehicle that can carry books and do outreach.”
Narde said the city has secured a 50% match for the book mobile for a local donor and said it could be up and running by the end of this year.
Though the bulk of ARPA funds have been pooled into these four categories, Relph said there is still a lot that needs to be finalized, and dollar amounts could change.
This will also hinge on how the federal government continues to outline what is, and isn't, an appropriate use of funds.
“I’m always cautious about federal funds and how those guidelines have changed," Relph said, who added that Congress' first massive COVID aid bill, the CARES Act, has seen its spending guidlines change nearly two years after it was passed.
More communication will also be needed around spending, Relph said, an issue that was raised by Littleton resident Pam Chadbourne, who regularly appears before public comment during city council meetings, and said much of the details around "million-dollar items" has been vague.
"This is federal tax money ... I don't think that the city has been transparent and accountable for this budget, especially the ARPA allocations" Chadbourne said during a March 1 meeting when council voted to approve changes to its 2022 budget, which included boosts in its general fund.
Relph said much of this is a result of the unclear federal guidlines.
“You can’t have a lot of conversation if you don’t have definition,” he said, though he acknowledged more communication and community outreach needs to happen as that spending comes into focus.
“We’ve got to work on the communication now,” he said.
Schlachter said some discussions have already begun with business owners and is confident more community outreach will begin within the coming months.
“We definitely will have good community involvement moving forward,” he said.
A financial update that will include discussions around ARPA spending is scheduled for the April 12 council study session, according to city finance director Tiffany Hooten.
Schlachter said residents can expect to begin seeing the tangible effects of ARPA by this summer and into next year.
“It will be slow and deliberate, but we want to make sure those dollars are being put to use," he said.
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