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By Emerson Lynn, as seen in the St. Albans Messenger:

The City of St. Albans can expect its share of the American Rescue Plan stimulus money to be a shade over $2 million. St. Albans Town will receive about $1.9 million. Fairfield gets around $554,063. Franklin, $425,000. Swanton Village, 699,098 and the Town of Swanton, $1.9 million. Together, Franklin County’s municipalities are set to receive a total of approximately $14.5 million, or $293 per person for almost 50,000 people.

The $14.5 million is just for our municipalities. That doesn’t include the millions going to our schools, or the millions sent to us as individuals. It doesn’t include the $1.3 billion that the state has yet to decide how to spend. It doesn’t include the money that may be coming to the state if Congress passes President Biden’s two trillion dollar infrastructure program. It doesn’t include the money in Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion spend for aid to families just announced. It doesn’t include the normal flow of state funds to our communities and various on-going programs and services. It doesn’t include what municipalities normally spend, or any of their one-time projects.

To add to it all, Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, announced this week that the Senate would return to the past practice of “Congressionally directed spending” which will allow members of Congress to direct spending back to their states or districts. It was a practice — referred to as earmarks — that ended in 2011. Congress ceded that power of the purse to the executive branch.

As Mr. Leahy said, it’s time that power be returned to Congress. “To them [the executive branch] a new community center is nothing more than a line item on a spreadsheet. I have a deep understanding of Vermont’s communities, Vermonters and their needs.”

This “discretionary spending” totals roughly $1.4 trillion.

This discretionary spending change has already been implemented in the House and Rep. Peter Welch says his office has received over 200 proposals to consider. Mr. Leahy’s plan also includes a number of limitations on who is eligible for the appropriations, how much can be spent, along with strict requirements on transparency. The vetting process is considerable, backed by a deep understanding of the state and its needs.

The point is that we have an absolute avalanche of money coming our way. The congressional intent is to allow states and municipalities as much flexibility as possible in deciding how the money can be best spent.

Flexibility is a good thing, until it isn’t. The worry that overwhelms is that we will miss the opportunities to maximize our potentials, that we don’t have suitable processes in place to guide our motivations.

A local example suits: Is it better for Swanton Village and the Town of Swanton to develop their separate plans to spend the money, or is it better to at least consider plans where the two municipalities use their $2.6 million to leverage the money for a larger goal? Could the two communities work with Highgate to complete the water/sewer line from MVU to the airport, which is being recognized as one of the county’s hot spots for commercial and industrial growth? Or should all our towns keep the money for themselves and not look beyond their borders?

The same question can be asked of St. Albans City and Town. Should they act separately, or together? Should there not be proposals developed whereby separate and joint initiatives are developed and explored?

When these same questions are asked statewide something becomes immediately obvious: Once again, we’re being set up in our own little informational silos. We don’t know what ideas are neighbors are pursuing. There is no central site where the information is placed, allowing others to sift through looking for the best ideas, to, as a state, think strategically and long term. If the data were to be collected, could we not spot similar interests, sparking conversations that could lead to something not yet thought of? For a small state like Vermont, where almost all our cities and towns share similar histories and objectives, isn’t the potential for collective gain something that should be utmost in our consideration?

Our suggestion is that the state do for itself what Mr. Leahy’s staff does for him to gather the best proposals for his discretionary spending choices. The first step is to solicit the proposals. The second is to then vet them and place them according to reach, feasibility and effect.

The state should follow the same basic strategy. It should set up a central data center that shows how much money each community can expect — from all the various sources. It should make a direct appeal to those within each community to get involved and to submit their ideas. The state should then look for synergies between communities and the state itself, as well as the federal government. Perhaps it’s also possible for the state, in advance of the disbursements, to encourage municipalities to think in ways that buttress our common denominator efforts, such as cleaning our waters, building more affordable housing, dressing up our communities in ways that attract future growth. Is this something that could be done in concert with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, or the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

What we’re suggesting is that without such guidance and oversight we increase the probability of spending our money in ways that are less advantageous than they would be otherwise. The best way to guard against that is to have the process be as inviting and transparent as it can be.