By Callie Hietala
Tammy Pearson, Martinsville’s newest council member, champions more community involvement in the city’s local government. Pearson has often called for slowing down the city’s reversion process to allow for more public comment on the issue. During a contentious Feb. 22 meeting, she spoke out once again, this time asking her fellow council members and city staff to solicit input from city residents to determine how to spend $15.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief money.
At that meeting, Martinsville City Manager Leon Towarnicki presented a list of proposed projects that would rely on American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) monies.
A tense back-and-forth between several council members occurred when Pearson expressed a desire to solicit community input on spending the funds, citing methods used by different localities to decide how to allocate the funds and projects those localities ultimately chose to prioritize.
“There is a lot of information on ARPA out there,” Pearson said, and explained that she looked at localities similar to Martinsville, though not necessarily in terms of population. Roanoke, Williamsburg, Norfolk, and Blacksburg are included in the document she compiled, as is Morganton, WV. In all, Pearson estimated that she looked at 15 localities, as well as other organizations, like the Brookings Institution and the National League of Cities.
“There’s just a plethora of information out there,” she said, adding that she also spoke with various people in the city as part of her research. While she declined to identify those people, Pearson said, “what I first wanted to understand is what the funds could really be used for. Then I wanted to see what kind of process these cities went through to come up with their project list, and then the ideas that they did come up with that maybe we hadn’t even thought of or wasn’t on this list that Leon and Eric created,” she said.
Towarnicki said that the list was created with input from several people. “As funding amounts were being made public,” he wrote in an email, “several of our staff members were being offered suggestions from a variety of different sources on possible uses of the funds. I began assembling a list of potential uses to track the ideas and suggestions.”
From her research, Pearson said she found there were four main categories related to how the funds could be used – responding to pandemic-related public health emergencies or its negative impacts; providing premium pay to workers performing essential work during COVID or providing grants to eligible employers with workers who performed essential work, which she later noted, can be applied retroactively; make necessary investments in infrastructure including water, sewer, and broadband; and provisioning government services “to the extent of the reduction of revenue due to COVID related to revenues collected in the most recent full fiscal year prior to COVID.
“From what we’ve seen, our revenues did not decrease very much,” Pearson said.
Those main categories are further split into seven summary expense categories, Pearson said of public health, negative economic impacts, services to disproportionately impacted communities, premium pay for essential workers, infrastructure, revenue replacement, and administrative expenses.
The research “opened my eyes,” she said. “I kept hearing it was very complicated, that there were thousands of pages of documents to explain it.” Yet, other localities were able to simplify it for their residents.
“I saw summary after summary of it,” Pearson said. “Cities, counties, towns were putting these summaries on their webpages saying, ‘this is what we can use ARPA funds for. What are your thoughts?’”
In the document Pearson prepared for council, she noted the National League of Cities “provided an article on community engagement strategies for ARPA funding and discussed its importance.”
Some of those strategies used in other cities, according to her notes, included online and paper surveys; drop boxes to collect public input; public hearings; steering committees with representation from residents, nonprofits, and small businesses; meetings with various organizations including Rotary clubs, chambers of commerce, and schools; and meetings with city department heads for feedback and input.
Pearson said that in the document she compiled, “I gave an example of the way one city did the process and I said I think we should discuss doing something like that.”
She said the city solicited public input via surveys and town hall meetings “and then they put together a working committee” which, Pearson said, could consist of several council members, city officials and departments heads, and other community stakeholders, making sure that all demographics were represented.
From those larger groups, Pearson said, smaller committees could be formed and tasked with focusing on specific projects. The committee could then report its recommendations back to the larger group.
“I also read that that’s the way a lot of localities do their strategic plan,” Pearson said. “There are many, many ways the funds are being utilized in Virginia and other state localities, some which I believe should be considered in Martinsville.”
Another of her ideas is using some funds to address the issue of mental health. “We know that, due to COVID, mental health issues have increased dramatically. We’ve had suicides here in Martinsville and Henry County of teenagers— three or four in the last two or three years. And we’re a small town,” she said. “Do I know if that was directly related to COVID? No. But the research is showing those issues have increased.”
Other options on Pearson’s list (which enumerates 18 ideas in all) include business incentives for new and existing businesses, addressing the issue of substance abuse, expanding the availability of stable and affordable housing, providing community violence intervention, providing childcare, improving outcomes in juvenile justice, and addressing climate and environmental changes.
Pearson particularly focused on the issue of infrastructure, which also was a major point of her comments during the council meeting. She said that, in discussions about reversion, the city has often referred to its crumbling infrastructure.
“City council has continued to say that, if we revert, we would be able to spend a lot of the additional money we would have on infrastructure, and they keep alluding to a crumbling infrastructure. If you’re saying it’s crumbling, and we now have the money” why is so little being spent to address that issue, she asked.
The list presented by Towarnicki included $804,070 for the Summit View Water Line Project and $200,000 for miscellaneous stormwater repairs. Monday said the city was more likely to find other funding sources for infrastructure than the projects included on the presented list.
“I’m sure there’s a lot on this list you can get additional funding for,” Pearson said, noting the $4.5 million currently allocated to uptown revitalization as an example.
Though there is a time constraint on when the funding must be used, Pearson said she believes there is time to solicit community opinion.
“I think if you have a good facilitator and a good group, you can truly get them focused, and I don’t think this has to take a long time. If you really concentrated on it and made it a priority, I think it could be done in a month,” she said. But “I wish we had started this process in July or August, when we knew we were going to get the funds, even if we didn’t know how much we were going to get.”
In the end, Pearson believes the time needed to hear from the community would be time well-spent.
“I think we can spare a month to figure out how the city is going to spend $15 million,” she said. “It’s a one-time shot. It needs to be strategic and well thought out by more than 2 people.”
Towarnicki agreed that “there is absolutely time to go through whatever review and decision process the majority of council would like to pursue.” He did note that, because of the time constraints tied to the funding, “the review process can’t go on indefinitely.”
Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles said Towarnicki’s list was preliminary. She added that she welcomes “new ideas and suggestions as long as they can make a meaningful impact” and won’t put the city in a position where it will need to continue to fund a project after the ARPA funds are spent.
Bowles proposed a survey be distributed to city residents online, and noted that, from her perspective, community input on ARPA expenditures has focused on demolition (the project list proposes $500,000 for the demolition of blighted properties) and countering high utility rates.