By Claudia Chiappa
Boston University News Service
BOSTON — The Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed its version of a $3.82 billion American Rescue Plan Act spending package late Wednesday, allocating about half of the federal relief funding to several areas of need.
In western Massachusetts, there is money to improve local public health systems, provide storm damage disaster relief, and fund environmental work and internet infrastructure.
The Senate voted 38-0 in favor of a package that prioritizes health care, including behavioral and mental health, economic recovery, and climate preparedness among others. The vote came after multiple hearings and a total of 722 proposed amendments.
Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, said one of her main priorities during debates was building a stronger public health system.
“I had a strong focus on public health in my own advocacy and on what we have to do to be more prepared, more resilient and more equitable the next time we face such a disaster,” Comerford said.
When the pandemic shook the foundations of the commonwealth’s public health system, many rural areas were not prepared, Comerford said — there wasn’t a strong enough foundation to handle the crisis.
In its ARPA package, the Senate allocated $250.9 million to local and regional public health, in particular providing funds to “communities with the least ability to meet minimum public health standards, enact workforce development and training initiatives, and transform public health data systems.”
“The communities hardest hit were low-income, communities of color, and rural communities,” Comerford said. “These are the communities that didn’t have the same public health infrastructure or the same level of preparedness of bigger, wealthier communities.”
One of Comerford’s amendments, which passed unanimously, aims to transform the local public health system by introducing a minimum public health standard across the state and by ensuring that the state contributes financially to this new system.
“Right now, local public health is funded largely by local dollars,” Comerford said. “That means your ZIP code largely determines the kind of local health you get. But this policy directs the state to come up with a methodology to get state dollars to local communities, and that’s huge.”
These new standards will ensure that no matter the location, residents can access high-quality public health resources.
“We’re building a new public health system in the commonwealth and we will have it in place should we face another kind of disaster,” Comerford said.
Another important amendment for western Massachusetts was offered by Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield. It allocates $7.5 million for regional storm damage disaster relief.
Earlier this summer, several towns in western Massachusetts were hit by severe rainstorms and received no federal funding for damages and reparations. Some towns reported over $20 million in initial damage assessments, Hinds said
“Depending on the town you’re talking about, it’s impossible to cover that,” Hinds said. “And so we wanted to make sure the state stepped in to support our small towns.”
Hinds said the digital divide was another priority. Out of the $75 million allocated to tackle digital inequities, Hinds said he filed for an amendment which ensured some of the state surplus was invested in helping towns pay off some of the debt they incurred when building internet infrastructure.
“COVID revealed that poverty plays as big a factor as infrastructure in determining who has access to the internet,” Hinds said. “The other piece the $75 million will go towards is resiliency and affordability. And so we have a lot of work to do in making sure that this money is used wisely.”
Comerford also filed an amendment to allocate funding for the Water Energy & Testing Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which provides water testing services for the state. In particular, it tests for PFAS, synthetic substances known as “forever chemicals,” which can be found in water and which are toxic for humans.
“UMass is doing groundbreaking work, absolutely critical work,” Comerford said. “And it is actually leading the state’s work on PFAS detection. And they’re not doing it with the right resources.”
The amendment allocated $1.5 million for the WET Center’s renovation. Comerford said the center is not currently getting the resources it needs to carry out its work, but this investment is a good start.
“If UMass doesn’t do it, then we won’t have it,” Comerford said. “And it’s important for western Mass. as well as the nation.”
This round of ARPA funding only covers a portion of the total relief funding available and many other areas of concern still need more attention, including higher education, according to Hinds.
Housing and shelter
About $800,000 was allocated for housing and shelter in Hampshire and Franklin counties, which Comerford said is a great start yet not nearly enough.
“More is needed in our region and across the commonwealth,” she said. “My job now is to make sure western Mass. gets its fair share of the ARPA funding that’s in the bigger bucket.”
Area legislators advocated to ensure that the needs of western Massachusetts residents are heard.
“The power base in the commonwealth is in eastern Massachusetts,” Comerford said. “The type of community in eastern Massachusetts is simply different than western Massachusetts, so sometimes when policy is made, it doesn’t make enough sense to us out here. We just have to make sure that colleagues in eastern Massachusetts understand the difference between what we need and deserve out here and what they need and deserve out east.”
One of the main areas of focus of the Senate package is economic recovery. The plan will invest $1.7 billion into economic and workforce development, including $500 million toward one-time pay bonuses for essential workers and $500 million for the state’s unemployment trust fund.
The Senate also plans to invest more than $1 billion in health. The proposed bill allocates $400 million for mental and behavioral health, $250.9 million for local and regional boards of public health, and $200 million for hospitals serving communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
Almost $600 million is allocated to housing and $450 million to address climate change.
“We’re at a unique moment where we’ve seen a lot of flaws in our systems, either through COVID-19, or the ongoing racial reckoning and the economic downturn,” Hinds said. “We’ve been clear that that means improving our basic structure of the economy, especially housing, and major investments in climate and workforce development. And now we need to ensure its use carefully at the local level.”
Other locally significant amendments in the package include a Comerford proposal which ensures that a part of the $125 million in funding for environmental infrastructure also addresses healthy soils solutions to sequester carbon dioxide.
Thousands of dollars were also allocated to prevent homelessness in Amherst and in the Greenfield area, and for Community Action’s Three County Continuum of Care to operate a domestic violence-related housing search program. Another $100,000 would help Bernardston with municipal needs, and $100,000 is designated for the Pioneer Valley Mosquito Control District.
Some of Hinds’ local efforts include almost $700,000 allocated for outdoor recreation enhancements in western Massachusetts, $200,000 for the Holistic Approach to Reducing Poverty program, $75,000 for an emergency shelter at Louison House in northern Berkshire County, $50,000 for the operation of the Hilltown Mobile Market, and $75,000 to rehabilitate the Wilder Homestead in Buckland.
The House unanimously passed its version of the spending package late last month. In order for the bill to reach Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk, the House and Senate must now reconcile their packages and reach a consensus by Nov. 17, when the formal session ends for the calendar year.
So far, the House and Senate versions share the $500 million invested toward the unemployment fund and the $500 million for bonus payments to low-income essential workers.
“They’re not wildly different,” Comerford said of the House and Senate packages. “We both want the same thing. We both wanted equitable recovery for our people. Our job is to figure out the best way forward.”
This article originally appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.