Westport officials, residents discuss what to do with $8.4 million in federal funding

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Westport First Selectman Jim Marpe

Westport First Selectman Jim Marpe

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — Westport has $8.4 million coming its way from the federal government and local officials have a wish list of what they want to do with it.

But at Wednesday evening’s Board of Selectman meeting to discuss how to use the town’s funding from the American Recovery Plan Act, residents made it clear they’d like to see money go toward protecting buildings from extreme weather and improving waterways to prevent flooding, particularly when it comes to Dead Man’s Brook.

Some of the proposals heard from different town departments on Wednesday ranged from putting $150,000 toward improving local bus shelters to $100,000 for clearing 6.5 miles of trees to prepare for future storms. There were also suggestions to put money toward improving affordable housing and mental health in town, updating town hall for ADA compliance, buying a generator for the Aspetuck Health District, and distributing aid to local arts organizations, among other suggestions from town leaders.

The current proposed projects as of now would cost the town about $8.94 million, about $50,000 over what they received.

Residents had additional suggestions, most of them about improving resiliency across town to prevent future flooding, especially along Dead Man’s Brook. Department of Public Works Director Peter Ratkiewich said a study of the area showed the fixes needed would require taking property from people and the improvements wouldn't make a difference with the flooding problem.

However, officials said moving forward, climate resiliency will be at the forefront of their minds when funding projects.

“Eight point four million sadly isn't enough to cover everything we need to do under resiliency,” said Selectwoman Melissa Kane. “But going forward, where we really need to be looking is at resiliency.”

Many residents spoke in favor of the already existing proposals, particularly when it came to health and safety, but some had additional suggestions on how that spending could be further improved. Mike Burns, president of Westport Volunteer EMS, suggested $200,000 go toward a new ambulance for the crew. His suggestion was supported later by others at the forum.

“I have it on good authority that our fleet of three ambulances are suffering and breaking down a lot not only due to wear, but age,” Burn said. “We stand ready to replace our ambulances, but we see this as an opportunity to directly help Westport EMS without making an impact on taxpayers.”

Many also spoke in support of funding new equipment for the police department, which Chief Foti Koskinas said was needed to meet the standards set by the police accountability bill the state passed last year. Others questioned whether the town should be paying for a new generator for the recently renamed Aspetuck Health District unless Weston and Easton — also part of the health district — contribute as well.

However, overall many seemed enthusiastic about the existing ideas and the opportunity the funding presents the town.

Constituent feedback will be incorporated into the next draft of the proposal which will be present to the Board of Finance later this month or early next month. It’s expected the Board of Selectman will finalize the selection by late October.

First Selectman Jim Marpe said at Wednesday’s meeting that there are two approaches to spending the funds — either take on a few projects or address more across more constituencies. All projects will still go through the normal appropriations process, he said, and vary in their stages of preparedness with some being ready to go immediately and others laid out without estimates on their cost.

The ARPA funds will be distributed to the town in two batches. The first half came in May 2021, while the next batch will come next year.

The funds can be used to lessen the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, provide premium pay for essential workers, provide government services reduced by COVID or make necessary infrastructure improvements. Projects from the first tranche of funding must be underway by the end of 2024 while projects from the second tranche must be underway by the end of 2026.

Overall, the state got $1.5 billion in ARPA funding, according to Marpe.