Brattleboro, nonprofits eye federal stimulus funds
Flood-damaged trailers awaited removal at Glen Park in West Brattleboro following Tropical Storm Irene. Tri-Park Cooperative Housing Corporation is seeking federal funding to implement elements of a master plan for its three trailer parks, where some structures remain vulnerable to flood damage.

Brattleboro, nonprofits eye federal stimulus funds

Town to receive $3.3 million in federal pandemic relief funding; local organizations apply for federal funds to solve local issues

BRATTLEBORO — The town is set to receive $3.3 million in federal COVID aid, according to U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.

Welch made the announcement at the Selectboard's April 6 meeting.

At the same meeting, community members also outlined proposed projects recently submitted to Welch's office as requests made under Community Project Funding, also known as the earmark process.

The funding is part of the $1.9 trillion federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), enacted last month. ARPA also includes substantial funding for school districts.

The federal delegation - Welch, and senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders - will ensure that the money will reach the state, but Welch said that the decisions on how to use the resources are best made at the local level.

Those decisions, he told the board, “are going to have a lasting impact well beyond the next couple of years.”

Money will come to the town in allotments made in 2021 and 2022.

Welch said that ARPA spending protocols mirror those attached to last year's Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. According to Welch, the windfall will come with guidance, but not with as many restrictions as last year's CARES monies.

Communities will have until the end of 2024 to spend the money, Welch said, “so it's not a 'hurry up and spend.' It's a 'take your time and figure out how best to do this' to help your citizens.”

ARPA also includes up to $1,400 in direct aid to individuals, extends the unemployment benefits set up under the CARES Act, increases funding for vaccine distribution, and continues the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), he said.

It also includes a $300-a-month child tax credit, which Welch called “a godsend” for families - a provision expected to reduce the level of childhood poverty by 50 percent.

Welch said he still remembers his flight home from Washington in March 2020 as the scope of the pandemic was just starting to take shape. Normally, the airplane would be packed with passengers, he said, but that day, the representative was the only passenger.

He returned to a state that was quickly closing down its gatherings, restaurants, and businesses and stepping into the uncertainty of the COVID-19 public health crisis.

“You know in Brattleboro just what you had to contend with,” he said.

After his big announcement, Welch heard from community members who have applied to his office for funding under the Community Project Funding (CFP).

The CFP is spending directed to specific projects or entities. Also known as earmarks, the funding was a no-go for approximately a decade.

Welch's website states that the House Appropriations Committee will accept up to 10 community projects from each member of Congress for possible inclusion in the fiscal year 2022 appropriation bills.

The window to make requests closed on March 31. Welch's office will announce his project nominations at the end of April.

Connecting affordable housing, flood resilience, and safety

One of the three groups mentioned at the Selectboard meeting is Tri-Park Cooperative Housing Corporation, which provides affordable housing to 800 residents in Brattleboro.

Tri-Park Board President Kay Curtis said the organization is undertaking a large infrastructure project. The board has created a master plan, but needs help moving the plans forward.

The cooperative mobile home parks - Mountain Home Park, Glen Park, and Black Mountain Park - once collectively offered 333 sites to nearly 1,000 residents, almost 10 percent of the town's population.

But 20 homes were lost in 2011 when portions of the parks were swamped during Tropical Storm Irene.

“We need help before another Irene,” Curtis said.

Adam Hubbard has served as Tri-Park's owner's representative for three years. He told Welch that as someone who has worked in land and community development, he considers the project the most important he has seen in decades.

The project connects safety, climate change, flood resilience, and affordable housing, Hubbard said.

The three parks' founding predates Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood hazard maps, he added.

Now faced with areas in the flood zone, the cooperative has “suffered from problems it didn't create,” he said.

A new model for health care

Josh Davis, executive director for Groundworks Collaborative, presented a pilot project to improve health services for people experiencing homelessness.

Healthworks ACT - assertive community treatment - is a collaboration of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, Groundworks, the Brattleboro Retreat, and Health Care and Rehabilitation Services (HCRS). The 11-member project team is seeking $1.26 million in seed funding through the CPF.

Davis told Welch that the country's health-care model does not serve community members without housing. Healthworks would work with “embedded” clinicians to provide trauma-informed health and substance-misuse care with peer support.

The project hopes to reach the community's most vulnerable, reduce involuntary crisis interventions, reduce pressure on the emergency services systems, and save lives, Davis said.

According to Davis, initial cost estimates show that, per person, one month of care under Healthworks is roughly equivalent to one day in the emergency room or a psychiatric in-patient program.

In a separate interview, Davis explained that Healthworks would build off the organizations' previous success with having health-care workers and clinicians available to work with clients on-site at Groundworks facilities.

During the pandemic, the team working with clients temporarily housed in local hotels saw how more effective and successful they were when the clients, health-care workers, mental-health clinicians, and substance-misuse peers were “all under one roof,” he said.

“There was a benefit to bringing services to where they [the clients] are,” he said.

Davis said experience also showed that working with clients at the motels was a better way to connect them with a primary medical practice or with systems of care - routine access that could provide a detour from a traumatic stay in the hospital or a visit to an emergency room.

Healthworks aims to serve people who are experiencing housing insecurity, have a diagnosed serious mental illness, and often use emergency care in place of ongoing services “because their mental and medical health care needs are not being met by the current system,” the team writes in its CPF application.

The program will emphasize “shared decision-making, round-the-clock availability, flexibility, and tolerance of uncertainty,” the team writes.

Davis described Healthworks as a patient-centered “demonstration project.”

According to the team's application to Welch's office, if approved, the money would offer support for one year to launch, monitor, and refine the program. In this pilot year, the program would support approximately 75 people with the goal of expanding to at least 120.

Healthworks will not rely on federal earmarks for long-term funding, Davis said.

Once the project has “proved itself,” the team will “advocate for incorporation into the state's health care payer system with specific billing codes to support the project's longer-term financial sustainability,” the team writes in its application.

“What's amazing about this project is the level of collaboration and commitment from the different organizations,” Davis said.

Increasing staffing, supporting patients

The Brattleboro Retreat applied to CPF for funding to launch a workforce development program.

According to information supplied by the psychiatric hospital after the Selectboard meeting, the organization is seeing $561,060 to reverse a shortage of health-care workers and rebuild its inpatient clinical staff. Doing so will help stabilize the hospital's finances and ensure that it will continue to serve its clients.

The hospital was dealing with workforce issues before the pandemic that many rural hospitals faced - for example, a decreasing local population and a national nursing shortage. Located at the meeting point of Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, the Retreat also sits in a competitive labor market, said staff.

The health concerns that workers and patients faced during the pandemic meant many health-care workers quit and clients opted out of inpatient programs, according to staff.

“In order to return to pre-pandemic capacity, the Retreat needs to rebuild its inpatient clinical workforce,” wrote staff.

Specifically, the Retreat seeks to increase its recruitment efforts and grow its workforce. The 24-month initiative would include offering potential sign-on bonuses, forgiving tuition, and hiring a human resources recruitment consultant.

The initiative would also implement an evidence-based treatment model, Six Core Strategies. This framework aims to reduce interventions such as restraints and seclusion while it increases staff safety.

If successful, the initiative would result in hiring 50 registered nurses and 40 entry-level mental health workers and licensed nursing assistants (LNA).

“The Retreat seeks to rebuild its workforce and to provide employees with the kind of training and ongoing support that will result in increased job satisfaction, lower staff turnover, a safer work environment, and better outcomes for patients,” wrote Retreat staff.

“Increased capacity at the Brattleboro Retreat will also go a long way in stabilizing Vermont's overall system of health care delivery, which depends on the expertise of Retreat clinicians to treat people with serious, acute mental illness and addiction issues,” the proposal continued.

Local leadership

Welch thanked the applicants for their presentations and said the projects represented “community committed to community.”

The country will recover from the pandemic only with “real local leadership,” he said.

According to the National League of Cities (NLC), an advocacy group, $65 billion was allocated in ARPA for municipalities.

The NLC estimates that Vermont communities will receive more than $76.5 million.

The organization lists funding estimates for every town in Windham County, totaling $4,175,658. The rough estimates combine census data with previous formulas for delivering federal funds through the Community Development Block Grant program.

Welch said he expected towns to have questions about the new funding. Municipal officials and employees should reach out to his office for assistance, as well as to staff working for Sanders and Leahy.

“The recent rescue package is an acknowledgement that even though we have the vaccine - and we're very close to 3 million people a day getting vaccinated - we still have a ways to go,” Welch said. “We don't want to leave communities and businesses behind.”

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