The following Letter to the Editor was published in the online and print editions of the Belmont Citizen Herald on March 25, 2021.
When override opponents announced that the American Rescue Plan was a “game changer” regarding the need for an override, it sounded too good to be true, and it was. ARP funding does not change Belmont’s need for an override. It does begin to address the concerns of residents for whom the override presents the biggest financial challenge. In addition to providing $1,400 to eligible individuals, ARP includes emergency rental assistance, aid to small businesses, and grants to homeowners struggling to catch up on mortgage, utility, property tax and insurance payments. That is good news for Belmont residents.
On the other hand, most of the ARP aid to municipalities is reserved for specific purposes having to do with the impact of COVID-19 or addressing critical infrastructure gaps in some communities. The amount of unrestricted funding is not only relatively small, but the town also already has plans for it.
Rather than budget for fiscal year 2022 COVID-19-related expenses and raise the override request even further, the town presciently banked on federal aid coming through. That means that every unbudgeted school district COVID-19 expense for the coming school year may actually be paid with federal dollars. These are numerous and include COVID-19 testing regimens and the staff to support them, contact tracing costs, counseling for students and professional development for teachers to support student mental health, summer school and tutoring to address learning gaps, and — perhaps most expensive of all — the potential that Belmont will need to provide families with health concerns a remote option for schooling into the 2021-22 school year.
Fortunately for Belmont taxpayers, the ARP means that none of these exceptional COVID-19-related expenses are likely to come out of Belmont’s general operating budget, which is already stretched thin. Unfortunately, one-time ARP funds don’t change the fact that Belmont still faces a multi-year structural deficit that predates COVID-19 and was not caused by it. Our deficit over FY22, FY23, and FY24 adds up to almost $20 million. Even the rosiest picture of potential federal aid does not address that deficit, and delaying the override will only make the situation worse.
– Mary Lewis, Randolph Street