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Recovery funds leads to strategic planning

By Kevin Elliott

Bloomfield Township officials on Tuesday, September 6, held a special study session to discuss how best to spend $4.4 million in federal funds granted through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provided to offset revenue losses due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Bloomfield Township Supervisor Dani Walsh said the funds, which total $4,407,946.33, are a one-time disbursement, and must be used in accordance with specific guidelines. Township administrators and trustees met with department heads who presented potential projects and discussed how best to utilize the funds. Walsh said the money must be obligated by the end of 2024, and spent by December 31, 2026.

“This is a one-time thing because of coronavirus,” Walsh said.

Bloomfield Township department heads on September 6 presented roughly $42 million in proposed projects that could utilize the federal funds. Walsh said the money can’t be spent on debt service or pension liability, and must fall into at least one of four categories: replacing lost public sector revenue; supporting COVID-19 public health and economic responses; providing premium pay for eligible workers performing essential work; and investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

Proposed uses of the money ranged from multi-million-dollar initiatives – such as sewer projects and replacing the fire station at Maple and Telegraph – to smaller items, such as purchases of specific public safety equipment or technology upgrades. Initiatives, such as developing a new strategic plan for the township and upgrading records management and document storage, were additional areas discussed for consideration.

Bloomfield Township Trustee Michael Schostak said he favors addressing several smaller projects that would have the greatest impact, rather than one or two big-ticket items.

“I have some thoughts and am taking it all in, but I'm glad we are going to reach out for feedback from the community,” Schostak said. “The federal government in their infinite wisdom thought it would be good for everyone to have this money, so we better do something good with it.”

Trustee Neal Barnett said he believes the money could be used to undertake a mix of both larger and smaller projects.

“I think we need both,” he said. “I agree that smaller projects are affordable, but they may also increase efficiency and safety without being too expensive. We could do a number of things that increase public safety, efficiency and customer service, but at the same time get some of those larger projects that are important.”

Township Clerk Martin Brook recommended the board develop an objective ranking system to help prioritize what projects should be considered.

“Just with some quick numbers, there’s about $42 million in projects,” Brook said. “The township has been great at expense management and keeping taxes to a minimum, but after a while bills come due.”

Brook recommended board members develop a list of criteria to help rank projects in a more objective manner.

“Perhaps we prepare a list of criteria, versus everyone identifying their favorite projects,” Brook said. “Criteria could be: is it eligible under the guidelines? Does it reduce tax liability for residents? Does it have long-term cost savings for the township over time? Does it define a direct resident impact? And we view them with the idea of bringing some objective measurement to the process.”

Township Treasurer Brian Kepes supported Walsh’s desire to develop a strategic plan for the township, which would help procure other unrelated grants in the future and keep the township on track for being “best in class” as a community.

“My sense is that we are going to be implementing a good portion of these items that are on the list. My question is: how are we going to do it and when are we going to do it?” Kepes said. “I also like Martin’s (Brook) thought for having some objective criteria we can come to make a decision. My sense is, this is a bucket of money and I think residents want to know what we spend it on. It’s difficult to say we did 10 or 20 projects. I think it needs to be something that has real impact. Unfortunately, the items that have significant impact are multiples of what these dollars are. Again, with a strategic plan, we will get from here to there, but we have to really start with that as a basis.”

Trustee Valerie Murray said many of the projects impact more than one department or area of service. For instance, updating information technology items could help public safety and services, such as quicker issuance of building permits.

“There are so many important things we touched on: public safety, communications, IT. It all comes together because you need communications for police and fire, and the building department and senior center, and IT is in the middle of all that, too. It’s going to take a lot of thinking,” Murray said.

Walsh said the board will continue to study the proposals, develop criteria and ranking, and solicit input from the community. She praised the board’s cohesiveness and importance of input from all members, as well as the community.

“This group has been so great at figuring things out together that I wanted to bring them to you and say, ‘this is what we see on a daily basis… it’s amazing how things are so intertwined with one aspect that involves four or five department heads,” Walsh said. “Even though these sound like individual needs, they are going to help a lot of different areas.”

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