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Barnstable County keeps wrestling over how to spend $41M in federal aid

Meeting screen grab
Barnstable County website
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Sheila Lyons and Ronald Bergstrom at the meeting on Wednesday.

The two branches of Barnstable County government continue to debate how to spend $41 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, more than a year since the law was signed by President Joe Biden.

The Assembly of Delegates wants most, if not all of the money, to go directly to towns. Barnstable County Commissioners want some of the federal stimulus money to go to regional projects, and some to the 15 Cape towns.

Commissioners originally planned to distribute the money as they do all their other grants: without input from the legislative body of the government, the Assembly.

Commissioners say they will be responsible for reporting back to the federal government how the money is spent.

But after some pushback from the Delegates late last year, Commissioners agreed to try to work together with them.

An ordinance was passed by the Assembly in mid December that basically required the County Commissioners to work along with the Assembly.

So far, the county has gotten half of that $41 million from the federal government. With collaboration in mind, county commissioners proposed distributing $10 million for regional projects like broadband infrastructure, nitrogen pollution clean-up, and housing – issues whose impacts are felt Cape-wide.

The remaining $10 million would go directly to towns that have shovel-ready projects.

But the Assembly didn’t like the proposal. In early March, it voted for all $20 million available be distributed among the 15 Cape towns.

Last week, County Commissioners responded, saying in essence, "That’s not a compromise." And Commissioners decided they would basically cut the Assembly out of the process.

Assembly members, speaking following last week's meeting, said that the Commissioners should not be able to work around the ordinance that was passed in December. They said Commissioners have to include them in the process.

Assembly speaker Patrick Princi, of Barnstable, said that some Assembly members may ask him to intervene legally if the assembly is ignored.

But also important here is that the Cape's towns want the money. Nine of 15 select boards on the Cape have written letters to the county, saying that all of that 41 million dollars in federal stimulus money should go directly to them.

In another twist, Falmouth's representative to the Assembly, Doug Brown, is resigning. He's also a Select Board member in Falmouth, a position that a state ethics commissioner says creates a conflict, as the Assembly negotiates how to spend that federal stimulus money.

Brown's resignation may represent as well some political strategy. Brown could have simply recused himself to satisfy the ethics board. But by stepping down, Brown allows the town to appoint another member to the assembly.

That appointee could then advocate that the county send the federal money directly to the towns. Brown says they've actually already identified someone that could be on the board by next week.

Falmouth’s vote in the Assembly of Delegates is particularly important because it has more weight. Each delegate’s vote is based on their town’s population.

Three other delegates in the Assembly are also town Select Board members: the representatives of Brewster, Mashpee and Bourne.

If all four Delegates were to recuse themselves, that could be a blow to the Assembly trying to ensure that all of the money goes to the towns.

At a meeting Wednesday, Commissioners voted to allocate $10 million to the 15 towns around the Cape. They also formed a new advisory group that will review requests for grant funding before the Commissioners make decisions on which projects get funded. Commission chair Sheila Lyons indicated that she had spoken with the assembly speaker, and that they were ready to vote on the issue.

The County Assembly is expected to meet Wednesday to discuss.