Reading, MA — The Reading ARPA Advisory Committee (RAAC) voted 6-0-1 on Tuesday to recommend that the Select Board allocate $900,000 of the $7.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to support services for senior citizens. This came one week after a $2 million recommendation for a literacy curriculum was forwarded to the Select Board.
Assistant Town Manager Jean Delios outlined the request, reminding the RAAC that seniors make up about 25 percent of the population of Reading and have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Delios also shared the results of past studies regarding the 140-year-old Pleasant Street Center’s inability to meet the needs of seniors in the community, which led the Select Board to establish the Reading Center for Active Living Committee (ReCALC) this past winter.
Delios outlined a plan she referred to as “a bridge to a new or repaired building” that will provide increased activities and programs for seniors over the next two years. These include bus trips, wellness programs, the rental of additional space in town, and a contracted volunteer coordinator. When questioned about the time-sensitivity of the request by RAAC member Geoffrey Coram, Town Manager Fidel Maltez responded that seniors have made it clear that they need something now. Also included in the funding request is $300,000 for a feasibility study once the ReCALC finishes its work and makes its recommendations.
RAAC member Andrew Grimes expressed concern over recommending the allocation before the results of a town-wide survey are completed. Coram, who ultimately abstained from the vote, agreed, “I cannot support $900,000 without the survey [results].” Resident John Sasso noted that Town Meeting had overwhelmingly voted to instruct the town to attempt to meet the needs of the seniors, suggesting that, in this vote, the town had already spoken. RAAC member Shawn Brandt added, “I find it hard to believe that the survey [results] will not support spending 12% of the money on 25% of the population.”
The Select Board will need to vote favorably in order for the funding to be appropriated.
Police Lt. Rich Abate, representing the four first responder unions in town, asked that $750,000 be set aside as compensation for the risks taken by police and fire employees who were unable to work from home, especially in the early days of the pandemic. Abate shared that these first responders “did their jobs without hesitation” with a “disproportionate burden on the staff and their families.” Abate also reminded the committee that this type of compensation was a part of the original guidance for use of the ARPA funds. Abate continued, highlighting that in many circumstances, first responders went into homes to give aid, knowing that the people had COVID.
While stating appreciation for the work done by first responders, RAAC member Mark Dockser warned against creating divisiveness in town as other staff, including DPW workers, teachers, and others also worked through the pandemic. Michael Fiorentino, representing AFSCME Local 1703, made that same point. This union represents between 125 and 150 Reading staff, including school and municipal custodial staff and cafeteria workers. “Reward the boots on the ground,” Fiorentino urged.
Samantha Couture, chair of the Historical Commission, presented a request for $13,500 to fund the digitization of historic pictures and maps, the hiring of a temporary archivist to catalog documents and records, and upgrade the software used to track archival records. Senior Civil Engineer Alex Rozyck presented a plan to use $100,000 for design documents to rework drainage and other issues at the Maillet Sommers Morgan Conservation Area on Willow Street. Completed designs will allow for the application of grants to construct the project. Rozyck shared that the project will provide flooding mitigation in the area, remove invasive species, improve accessibility to the conservation land, and provide open space, passive recreation, and educational opportunities.
The RAAC intends to complete its work in September and committed to viewing the results of the survey before making additional recommendations.
RAAC adjourned at 10:05 pm.