South Burlington city councilors Monday voted to reinstate three staff positions from funding limbo using American Rescue Plan money.
The full federal award for South Burlington clocks in at $1.8 million, a couple million less than what was expected due to a rule that sends funds to Vermont counties.
A report from city manager Jessie Baker’s office explained that the relief funds are “specifically intended to help with the rehiring of public sector staff” to relieve unemployment and return staffing to pre-pandemic levels.
The city will begin hiring for a city planner, a parks laborer and a deputy finance officer/benefits administrator for a total of $257,872 in estimated salary and benefits for one year. Other positions approved in the budget — a police officer, a firefighter/EMT and a fire department administrative assistant — will remain unfilled.
Deputy city manager Andrew Bolduc explained at the Monday city council meeting that, after management spoke with city department heads, the three positions were clearly the “most immediate priority.”
Many staff across city government were furloughed when COVID restrictions locked down the state in spring 2020, and while all furloughed employees returned last fall, many vacated positions remained empty or were combined with other roles. Earlier this year, when Todd LeBlanc left his longtime role as city assessor, Martha Lyons added his duties to her plate; her new title is director of tax collection and assessment.
“I agree wholeheartedly with the need to bolster our planning staff,” said councilor Matt Cota at the July 19 council meeting. “Coming from the development review board, I know how hard they all work and overwork sometimes, so I’m supportive definitely.”
Fewer dollars than expected
In March, Rep. Peter Welch tuned into a South Burlington city council meeting to reveal the city would receive $5.7 million in relief funds through the American Rescue Plan Act. Or so he thought.
As guidelines for how the funding can be used and who can spend it have rolled out over the last few months, Vermont state officials have pushed back on one rule that blocks local communities from receiving some of their money. Under the rule, a chunk of funding goes instead to county government — made up primarily of sheriffs and side judges — even though local governments in Vermont are much stronger.
County governments are set to receive a total of about $121 million while most cities and towns — with the exception of Burlington and South Burlington because of their size — will receive a total of about $58 million, according to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
Chittenden County is set to receive $10,616,907.
Karen Horn, director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, wrote a letter to Janet Yellin, secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department, urging the reallocation of relief funds to cities and towns instead of to counties.
“If Vermont’s limited county government were to spend ARPA funds on ineligible things or spend it not according to the rules treasury has established, our cities and towns would have to pay back treasury with city and town money,” Horn wrote in the letter, dated July 7. “That is because the county does not have its own taxation authority; it merely has the power of indirect taxation through the cities and towns, which tax residents and businesses, thereby generating revenues to be paid to the county.”
It is still unclear if and how county governments will spend their allocations, or if the federal government will alter the rule for Vermont.
American Rescue dollars must be distributed within three years and spent by December 2026.