CUMBERLAND – An outside company will help town leaders decide exactly how they should spend some $10.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds coming to the town.

The Town Council, at its meeting last Wednesday, May 18, agreed to hire HCH Enterprises for ARPA services in an amount not to exceed $20,250.

Mayor Jeff Mutter said the town is looking to carry out the spending the right way, and that he wants to put some of the ARPA money toward helping Cumberland’s businesses.

HCH will essentially come up with a strategic plan for the money, getting out into the community to assess its needs and desires.

HCH’s Robert Zarnetske, who in January attended a Cumberland Town Council meeting to advise the council on ARPA spending in his role as senior economic and policy analysis with the state’s Pandemic Recovery Office, explained what the company will do for the town.

A resolution supporting the hire states that HCH has played a critical role in the state’s recovery from the pandemic. The ARPA grant program presents “extraordinary opportunities,” it states, but also creates administrative burdens and requires careful attention.

Council President Mike Kinch asked what he said was an obvious question on why there was such a discrepancy between HCH’s bid for the work and those of others, which went as high as $200,000.

Zarnetske said that where others may have looked at the 10 percent figure that communities are allowed to use on administration and come up with an overall number, his company analyzed the number of hours they expect to be able to do the work in and came up with a cost based on those totals.

One company’s bid came in right at the maximum allowed $105,000. Zarnetske explained the gap in bids in part on the fact that no one has ever done this kind of work before.

Councilor Scott Schmitt asked if Zarnetske is confident they can do the work for that amount of money, suggesting concern about companies either overbidding or underbidding, and Zarnetske said that they are. Mutter said he spoke to Zarnetske and was assured that they have the people power to do the work. He said he’s very concerned about compliance, and the last thing he wants is to allocate money toward the wrong things or not report the spending correctly.

The mayor said he anticipates looking for more services related to the ARPA spending than just what was contained in the request for proposals approved last week, including around small business relief.

HCH will provide a project manager, compliance official and communications person to work with the community to ensure everyone knows what’s going on.

Should the community need more than the strategic plan contained in its request, said Zarnetske, officials can reach another agreement on additional work. He said HCH representatives will go out into the community to talk to people and report back what they learn through focus groups, surveys, and interviews with the community. Once their initial work is done, a determination can be made on whether further help is needed.

The town is contracting with HCH to appropriately determine and lay out in a detailed report what the community says it needs and what can be done with the funds, said Zarnetske.

If the town decides to make funds available to businesses or residents, he said, they could then work through development of criteria for a subrecipient program and designing a grant proposal process.

Zarnetske explained that the six “buckets” previously allowed for ARPA spending have been simplified dramatically since he spoke to the council in January. The Department of the Treasury received a lot of feedback and issued a final rule in February eliminating most of the complexity, he said, meaning rather than trying to fit spending into one of the six buckets with very specific criteria, the town could use all but $500,000 of its $10.5 million on a blanket “revenue replacement” item and have it be eligible for any government service that would otherwise be provided with local funds.

He said most of the administrative compliance burden has been lifted, though there are still some items officials need to pay attention to, including compliance with procurement rules and administration of funds. There is also prohibited activity such as using the money for pension fund contributions or settlement of lawsuits, he said, and though everything must be documented, it won’t be to the level needed as of a year ago.

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