Smithtown Supervisor Edward Wehrheim said the town will spend much of a $5 million influx of federal coronavirus aid money on downtown revitalization, drainage and ventilation improvements for town buildings.
"These projects are ready to go," Wehrheim said in an interview last week.
They include $500,000 in matching grants for Main Street business facade renovations; $100,000 in engineering for critical repairs to Callahans Beach in Fort Salonga, along with a still unknown amount for the construction work on a damaged bluff and stairwell to the beach; $700,000 in parking lot repairs at the Smithtown Senior Center; and $400,000 toward paving and other improvements at Celebrate Park in St. James.
The town will also spend $20,000 on drainage near Gibbs Pond in Nesconset. Much of the balance will be devoted to replacing aging HVAC systems in the Senior Center and the buildings scattered around downtown Smithtown that house departments not based in Town Hall.
Town officials are waiting to decide how to use about $2 million.
"You have that unknown factor" in the threat of the coronavirus delta variant, Wehrheim said.
Smithtown’s grant money — a second $5 million tranche will be delivered next year — is part of nearly $1 billion in aid headed to Long Island municipalities in coming years under the American Rescue Plan Act, according to figures provided by the New York State Council of Mayors and Municipal Officials, or NYCOM.
"These are historic amounts of federal aid," said Peter Baynes, NYCOM’s executive director. Federal guidelines allow for several categories of use, he said: infrastructure, premium pay for essential workers, response to the public health emergency or its economic impact, and replacing government revenue lost because of the pandemic.
Surveys of NYCOM’s municipal membership show that infrastructure projects like the ones Smithtown officials have proposed are among the most common uses of the aid money, Baynes said. About one-third of NYCOM members have said they intend to use aid money to address vacant and abandoned properties, and about 15% have said they will spend some of the money on premium pay for essential workers.
Several Long Island municipalities have rolled out their own ideas in recent months. Babylon Town officials launched a $3 million grant program in July for businesses and nonprofits struggling because of the pandemic. Huntington Supervisor Chad Lupinacci told Newsday in August that he wanted to use his town’s $22.2 million for "long-term projects" such as the Huntington Station sewer system. Brookhaven in August presented a 91-page recovery plan for its first of two $27.5 million aid payments that detailed multiple projects like road resurfacing and restoration of municipal jobs lost to layoffs or retirement during the pandemic.
Eric Alexander, director of Vision Long Island, a regional smart growth planning group, told Newsday that local officials need to beware of projects with ongoing costs like added staffing as they introduce ideas for how to spend the Rescue Plan’s large but limited sums.
Smithtown’s facade program, which would likely continue with another $500,000 commitment from the town next year, would avoid those pitfalls and could help attract new customers to downtown businesses, Alexander said.
"You can’t say it’s a panacea," he said. "This is some sort of recoupment or rehabilitation or support."
AID FROM AMERICAN RESCUE PLAN ACT
Nassau County / $383 million
Suffolk County / $286.8 million
Towns, cities, villages / $291.4 million