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Havre de Grace mayor plans to spend $11.7 million in federal COVID aid on ‘the greater good of our city’

Havre de Grace is expected to get $11.7 million in direct federal aid through the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill adopted last month, and Mayor William T. Martin plans to work with officials in his administration, the City Council and members of the public to find “a nice balance” of projects on which to spend the money.

“The formula we’re going to come up with, I promise you, is going to be the best formula that’s going to have the greatest impact moving forward in the city,” Martin said Monday. He anticipates spending it on a mix of projects, such as crucial infrastructure repairs as well as beautification initiatives.

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“At the end of the day, we’re going to bring forth a nice package that we feel is going to address immediate needs and future needs of the city,” Martin said.

The mayor announced the unexpected federal windfall during a council meeting Monday evening, noting city leaders learned about it a few weeks ago. The $1.9 trillion in the American Rescue Plan Act, which Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed into law in March, includes $350 billion to assist state, territorial, tribal, county and municipal governments as they work to mitigate the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Federal assistance typically goes through states and counties before coming to municipal governments, but this is the first time those dollars will go directly to municipalities, Martin noted.

Municipal governments are slated to get funding equal to about 75% of their annual budgets — the $11.7 million coming to Havre de Grace is about three quarters of the city’s typical general fund budget of around $16 million, according to Martin.

The federal aid is expected to come to Havre de Grace in two installments, with the first portion slated for May or June and the second installment 12 months later — the money must be spent by December of 2024, Martin said.

It can be used for “a wide variety of things,” although there are some restrictions, such as not lowering tax rates or using the money to support employee pensions.

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Potential uses include repairing infrastructure such as water and sewer lines, economic development or tourism initiatives and recovering from the economic downtown that happened nationwide as multiple businesses had to close or severely curtail the number of people who could patronize their establishments, plus a near cessation of travel.

“We found out about it and of course, your natural reaction is, ‘We didn’t ask for this money,’” Martin said, noting that Havre de Grace officials “did what we’re supposed to do” during the pandemic emergency.

“We issued a spending freeze,” he continued. “We buckled down like most Americans did, and we’re pretty responsible with our money.”

Martin has instructed members of his administration to “sit in on as many conference calls” as possible to find out the parameters on the federal money, such as what exactly it can be spent on, requirements on reporting how it was spent and a timeline for receiving it. He does not expect it will be part of the city’s budget for fiscal 2022, which he plans to submit to the City Council at their next meeting later this month.

Administration officials also have been told to “come up with as many scenarios as possible for the best allocation of these funds,” said Martin, who noted he already has heard suggestions from council members and some city residents.

“I can promise you this,” he said. “Whatever this city ends up spending that money on, every dollar of it will be justifiable ... it’s going to benefit everybody.”

Martin stressed that it will not go to “special interest groups,” and “that money is going to be spent on the greater good of our city.”

The mayor said the funds will “benefit all citizens equally” in terms of improving quality of life, public safety, public utilities and home values. He pledged to work collaboratively with the council on selecting projects and that there will be opportunities for public input.

“Our goal is to take that money and make Havre de Grace even more awesome than it already is — if that’s even possible,” Martin said.

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