Unexpected $12 million in pandemic aid allows towns to add safety and emergency equipment

By: - June 8, 2022 5:40 am

The Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery invited communities to apply for the reimbursement grants beginning in October after talking with towns and cities. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Pittsburg bought a police cruiser and emergency cones and barricades. Allenstown and Nelson opted for radios for their police and fire crews. Northfield put the money toward ventilators for an ambulance. Bristol bought a pickup truck to expand its emergency response fleet. 

The investments have cost the towns little thanks to an unexpected $12 million in American Rescue Plan funding that offered every community in the state $50,000 in reimbursement money for safety and emergency equipment. Towns had to pick up just 10 percent of the costs. 

“It was things that we were already looking for and trying to figure out how to squeeze into this year’s budget or do something next year,” said Dean Shankle, Amherst town administrator. “And all of sudden, it was just there.” 

The town has been reimbursed for police department air filters and is hoping to get approval to use the rest for a health monitor for the ambulance and a trailer for the highway department to give staff more space to social distance.

The $12 million reimbursement grant money comes from the $994 million in American Rescue Plan money the state was awarded last year and is in addition to $112 million that was previously provided directly to communities for a wide variety of uses, including broadband expansion, revenue replacement, and public health response. 

The Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery invited communities to apply for the reimbursement grants beginning in October after talking with towns and cities, said spokesman Alexander Fries. “It was something we identified as a need, and it’s a good use of the funds,” he said.

Communities had until Friday to submit reimbursement requests. Fries said he won’t know how much of the $12 million will go unclaimed until those requests are approved or denied.

Many towns have requested and received their full grant or close to it, including Barnstead, Alton, Belmont, Hanover, Lancaster, and Ossipee. But that’s not the case for all. 

Nelson saw just $17,000 of its reimbursement requests approved and others denied, said Edie Drinkwater, executive administrative assistant to the selectboard. The town is using the money to buy new radios and gear for its police and fire crews and a “jaws of life” tool to extract people trapped in a vehicle following a crash. 

For a town with fewer than 730 residents and annual budget under $1 million, the $50,000 grant was not unwelcome. But it was overwhelming, Drinkwater said. Communities had approximately seven months to identify eligible projects, purchase or order equipment, and submit required paperwork. That was too little time, she said. 

“It was an unexpected surprise to find something that the fire department could use and that met all of the specifications of the grant,” Drinkwater said. “It put a lot of pressure on towns, and no town wanted to leave any money on the table. You do the best you can, I guess.”

Orford was in a similar boat, spending just $6,500. Selectboard Chairman John Adams said they’ll use the money to begin engineering work on broadband expansion. This grant posed similar challenges to the $136,000 the town was awarded in federal relief money last year: quickly identifying qualifying projects that were unrealistic before pandemic aid arrived.

“For a little town that doesn’t have engineering or consulting on the payroll … we don’t have a list of projects for $50,000,” Adams said. The annual budget for the town of 1,200 barely tops $1 million. “For a big town, it’s a drop in the bucket. For us it’s significant, so we want to be smart about how we spend it.”

A shortage of supplies and workforce has left the town unsure it can meet deadlines for purchasing items and completing the work, Adams said. And, $50,000 won’t be enough to get broadband to the entire town.

“If broadband is really costing $30,000 to $50,000 per mile on average and we’ve got 42 miles, you do the math,” he said. “You will come up with several hundred thousand dollars required (from the town.) Why spend it when you don’t have the money to spend it?”

Other towns haven’t had trouble finding uses for $50,000 or close to it.

During the pandemic, Bristol Fire Chief Ben LaRoche, also the emergency management director, began sending a second vehicle to emergency scenes to separate response team members if they were exposed to COVID-19. The reimbursement grant has allowed the town to replace that less-than-ideal vehicle with a more efficient pickup truck that can accommodate more people but also transport equipment that must be decontaminated after an emergency call. It will also have the capacity to tow the regional public health trailers when the town hosts one without having to take another emergency response vehicle from the fleet. 

The town is waiting on approval of additional reimbursement requests for a mechanical CPR device and a lights and radio system for the truck, LaRoche said. 

The fire department would have needed to replace its old truck in three to five years, LaRoche said. “Now we can put that money into a new fire truck down the road,” he said. 

Franklin is waiting for approval to use its grant to cover some of the $69,000 cost of two cardiac monitors, which will replace the existing ones that expire in November, said Fire Chief Mike Foss. “Just about every medical call, we utilize one of these cardiac monitors,” he said.

Pittsburg has already received reimbursement for a police cruiser, which will double its fleet to two.

“We’re a pretty small town and the budget is just under $2 million,” said Beth Bissonnette, administrative assistant to the selectboard. A second cruiser “would not have been an option,” she said.

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.