An appointed body that oversees New Canaan’s Health and Human Services departments should be doing more to help the town set priorities on spending what remains of $6 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding, its members say.
The Town Council last month approved about $2 million in “ARPA” spending, including allocations for “premium pay” for school and town workers, greenlink sidewalks, year-round public bathrooms, a generator and marketing.
Yet the Health and Human Services Commission “should be giving more assistance and support to our elected officials on priority funding,” Russ Barksdale Jr., a member of the Commission, said at its Jan. 6 meeting.
“I did not see any priority funding given to our local or town Health Department, as an example,” Barksdale said at the meeting, held via videoconference. “Or local healthcare providers. Or ongoing, timely and accurate COVID testing. Or ongoing behavioral health support. We talk about it, but I did not see any priority funding that was given to those significant areas. So it is fine that we sit through a presentation as a Commission. But I think that we also need to take a look at our charter and our obligation to the town for setting priorities.”
The comments came during a portion of the meeting dedicated to ARPA.
Municipal officials began soliciting funding requests for New Canaan’s $6 million ARPA windfall over the summer, and town funding bodies subsequently held public hearings. Several organizations listed as making requests for funding did not receive money through the town’s first allocation, including VFW Post 653, Powerhouse Theatre, New Canaan Nature Center, New Canaan Police and Silver Hill Hospital.
Commission Chair Dr. Harrison Pierce said the meeting that the original thought with respect to Silver Hill “was to have a resource for families that couldn’t afford the mental health support—the psychologist, the therapist, the psychiatrist, whatever.”
“Social workers,” Pierce said. “And that is still in the offing here. Because—we have mentioned this—no one has enough money to pay, and the insurance companies don’t cover that area of health like they do other areas.”
Barksdale said that “yes, Silver Hill is an important issue, testing kits are important issues, PCR access, antigen tests.”
“We all know going through the cycle where early on the antigen tests were not the gold standard and were producing both false positives and false negatives,” Barksdale said. “We are seeing a lot more manufacturers and in the discussion right now, and some of the antigens are coming in packages because of the false negatives and false positives. So we are seeing, as healthcare providers, a lot of that. Hospitals are also, we talk about ICU and what their daily census is. But I don’t know if anyone has been into the emergency department of any of our local hospitals recently, but they have been stretched, and so nursing education and trying to recruit nurses into the profession.”
Barksdale cited a statement made on the U.S. Department of Treasury’s website: “The coronavirus state and local fiscal recovery funds, or ARPA, provide a substantial infusion of resources to help turn the tide on the pandemic, to address its economic fallout and lay the foundation for a strong and equitable recovery.”
The description “fits within our charter as a Commission, and I think we should be giving more attention to providing those priorities and looking at all of the information and data that we have, and providing support to both our selectmen as well as Town Council on what those priorities should be,” Barksdale said.
“Funding objectives that are listed, ‘Support urgent COVID-19 response efforts to continue to decrease spread of the virus and bring the pandemic under control,’ and ‘Address systemic public health and economic challenges that have contributed to the unequal impact on the pandemic.’ And certainly you can argue that the senior community in New Canaan has been disproportionately affected.”
Members of the Commission, including Jim Lisher and Tom Ferguson, and guests at the meeting voiced support for Barksdale’s view.
Pierce said, “When you look at the hospitals, the staffing, ERs are seeing 40 more patients than what they usually do. And every hospital is having a problem with staffing, with staff being sick, et cetera. But the main suggestion that Russ made is very good about giving us a direction of what to do. Because this list of the ARPA possibilities, I think we can influence that in a very positive direction, closer to what we do in terms of health and human services. The healthcare, the needs, the mental health.”
Town Councilman Kimberly Norton, who serves on a committee of the legislative body to Health and Human Services, said “there is both the heath component and the mental heath component and it would be great to have on some level this is a trauma to families and to children.”
“When you look at test scores and reading scores and math scores, they have decreased nationally and to have some kind of acknowledgment of that and how it affects children’s learning—although we have been in-person in New Canaan, which is terrific—there are residual effects,” Norton said.
Last month, just as the Town Council was preparing to decide on the first $2 million in ARPA funding, the town announced that it’s working with the New Canaan Community Foundation to vet such requests from nonprofit organizations. It’s unclear how much ARPA funding will be available through that channel or which nonprofit organizations would be steered toward direct requests rather than through the NCCF.