COVID-19 Response Update

City of Somerville FY22 Budget

FY22 ICS and Pandemic-Related Funding

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States in March 2020, the City of Somerville quickly shifted into emergency response mode, creating a robust virtual Incident Command System (“ICS”) that involved over 150 staff shifting from their typical jobs to take on additional emergency management responsibilities. Over the last year, the work of the ICS included:

  • Distributed food to more than 7,400 households through the Emergency Food Pantry when it was in operation. From July 1st, 2020 through May 2021, the City worked with Project SOUP to make 2,570 home deliveries and serve 6,900 individuals, including households and individuals who receive regular food deliveries as well as one-time households in quarantine.
  • Provided multilingual support to over 1,000 families, ensuring they had access to food resources, rental assistance, financial relief funds, utility assistance, and access to a vaccine appointment through the Immigrant Services Unit.
  • Provided advanced technical assistance to dozens of businesses and 385 COVID relief loans totaling over $4 million in financial assistance.
  • Provided $2.44 million in rental assistance to families.
  • Held multiple virtual vaccine Q&A sessions in five languages, with record-breaking meeting attendance ranging from 250 to 2,300 per session.
  • Hosted/staffed 23 flu and 62 COVID-19 vaccine clinics across the community.
  • Created more than 180 pages of COVID-19 website content, contributing to a 72% annual increase in website traffic compared to pre-pandemic usage.
  • Established a robust assurance testing for the Somerville Public School system, which currently tests over 4,200 students and staff each week. With the full return of students, the assurance testing program contributed to the positivity rate not surpassing 0.20%.
  • Coordinated 10,000 COVID tests through our community testing program, in collaboration with the Cambridge Health Alliance,
  • Communicated the results of over 22,000 COVID test results to residents and provided guidance on quarantine and isolation for those who were positive through the community and school testing program.
  • Established and implemented local contact tracing with the capacity to make referrals to provide basic needs for residents in isolation and quarantine when needed. The program investigated and traced 767 cases and connected 103 residents to social services.
  • Established health and safety protocols for City and community operations and provided guidance to businesses, organizations, and individuals seeking to run a business or activity or hold an event. As part of this effort, the Inspectional Services Department reviewed over 1,200 Health and Safety Plans.
  • Secured a substantial PPE cache to safeguard our community against COVID-19 through multiple surges.
  • Coordinated regional meetings for mayors and city managers with experts and state officials.

Each turn in the ever-changing course of the pandemic and subsequent public policies meant new responsibilities for staff. These responsibilities did not necessarily displace pre-existing duties, nor give way to proportional decreases in public health response or economic recovery efforts. Between infection waves, public health response efforts grew to include economic recovery even as preparations were underway for a potential second surge and the subsequent vaccine roll-out campaign.

Although employees are largely working remotely, staff output never ceased. Instead, staff have had to learn and adapt to new, virtual systems. Staff developed and implemented new processes to conduct core, day-to-day business and provide services to the best of their abilities and have refined these processes as the situation on the ground has changed.

Now that new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are declining and over 60% of all Somerville residents have been vaccinated, the ICS is continuing to evolve with these changes and is preparing to wind down as the City transitions from emergency response to recovery. The City’s ICS work has the following goal and objectives:

Goal: Continue to address equitable access to services and information until incident demobilization

  • Objective 1: Maintain comprehensive support of vaccination access
  • Objective 2: Continue to support public health response
  • Objective 3: Provide for on-going, multi-lingual external communications
  • Objective 4: Plan for and support the reopening of City business, schools and buildings as public health data and the evolving science allows
  • Objective 5: Begin to transition support from an ICS response into more regular channels and recovery efforts

The pandemic forced municipalities to immediately pivot from their standard operations to address a wide range of new challenges. Cities and towns now had to contend with the novel coronavirus and constantly evolving restrictions from both federal and state agencies, in addition to managing a completely unique financial situation: incurring new and necessary costs that had not previously been appropriated or planned for, to implement strategies that would keep the public safe and mitigate the spread of the virus.

The initial funding available to help cities and towns recover these costs was FEMA’s Public Assistance (PA) Program, which has historically supported disaster recovery costs resulting from hurricanes, tropical storms, snow storms, and the like. The CARES Act, passed by Congress in late March 2020, provided additional monetary support for local governments, and covered a wider range of expense categories than the limited FEMA PA program, which focuses on funding “emergency protective measures'' incurred by local governments. The CARES Act’s Coronavirus Relief Fund Municipal Program (CvRF-MP) gave cities and towns the ability to recover dollars spent on cost categories not allowable by FEMA, such as increased pandemic-related elections costs and short-term rental assistance programs. The third significant source of funding for local governments was established by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), signed into law on March 11, 2021. ARPA’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (CLFRF) offer the greatest flexibility in terms of usage of the three mentioned here, as these dollars can be used for not only urgent COVID-19 response efforts but also for systemic public health and economic challenges that have led to an inequitable pandemic impact on certain populations, in addition to lost public sector revenue and economic stabilization for households and businesses.

As of May 27, Somerville has received $38,605,150 from the FEMA PA Program, CvRF-MP, and ARPA CLFRF combined. Here is additional detail about these three funding sources, the total amounts allocated to Somerville, how these funds have been or can be spent, and additional pandemic-related funding notes.

1. FEMA Public Assistance (PA) Program:

FEMA PA is a federally administered reimbursement program, funding expenditures for work that is a direct result of the COVID-19 emergency. Initially, localities were responsible for 25% of approved costs; however, on January 21, 2021, a presidential memo was signed to increase the federal reimbursement rate from 75% of approved costs to 100% of approved costs, retroactive to the beginning of the pandemic. The new presidential administration also revisited earlier guidance and granted allowability for select municipal- and school-related reopening costs, as long as they were incurred after January 20, 2021. Also, new phases of the national pandemic response have prompted additional guidance and clarification from FEMA, sometimes after costs have been incurred. For example, while Massachusetts’ most robust vaccination phase began in February, FEMA was still publishing vaccination documentation requirements for localities in April. Monitoring the changing status of cost eligibility has been challenging, but Somerville has consistently led in number of applications submitted to and funds obligated by FEMA/Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA); as of May 27, Somerville was second, trailing only Boston, in Massachusetts’ cities with the most dollars obligated by FEMA, and third in the country for most obligations of cities of comparable size (population 70,000 to 100,000).

The FEMA PA and CARES Act Municipal Program were meant to work in tandem to some extent, prior to the announcement of the ARPA local funds, with FEMA PA supporting costs more clearly and directly linked to pandemic response and prevention, and CARES funding what might be considered risk mitigation or other secondary effects of the pandemic. Another difference between the FEMA PA and CARES Act Municipal Program is that while the CARES Act provided set allocations for municipalities, FEMA PA is an application program, with local entities submitting costs as they are incurred. To date, Somerville has submitted 27 “project worksheets”, or applications, to FEMA, seeking reimbursement of approximately $3 million. As of May 27, $563,543 had been awarded, and the bulk of project worksheets are still in the FEMA or MEMA queue for final review (both agencies conduct reviews of applicant submissions).

Somerville has submitted the following expenses to the FEMA PA Program for reimbursement:

  • PPE, including face masks and gloves, for public health and safety departments
  • Cleaning and disinfecting materials, hand sanitizer, bleach wipes - purchases made at outset of pandemic, utilized by first responders responding to identified or suspected COVID-19 cases
  • Increased communications needs, including costs for translation, signage, mailers, fliers, community outreach, and constituent response
  • Staff time and overtime costs for increased public safety and health response
  • Emergency management response and incident command support
  • COVID-19 testing services

2. CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund - Municipal Program:

The CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund - Municipal Program (CvRF-MP), administered by the Commonwealth’s Administration & Finance (A&F) Office on behalf of the U.S. Treasury, may only be used to cover costs that meet three statutory requirements:

  • Are necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to COVID–19;
  • Were not accounted for in the budget most recently approved as of March 27, 2020 for the State or government; and
  • Were incurred during the period that begins on March 1, 2020 and ends on December 31, 2021.

Somerville’s allocation of CvRF-MP funds was $7.19 million; the full allocation was received in fall 2020, and the City is spending the funds according to a budget of planned expenditures. Funds must be expended by December 31, 2021.

Overall, CvRF-MP dollars have had more flexibility than the FEMA PA program allowed for and were intended to help cities and towns cover expenditures where FEMA left off, with a few exceptions. A&F’s interpretation was based on a more conservative understanding of the Treasury guidance; therefore some cost categories, such as small business supports, were deemed ineligible in 2020 and the City was not able to respond to these clear needs in the community with CvRF-MP dollars and henceforth established funding in the City’s COVID Stabilization fund (see below).

Somerville has or will be utilizing its CvRF-MP allocation for the following expense categories:

  • PPE, including face masks and gloves, for school and city departments
  • Cleaning and disinfecting materials, hand sanitizer, bleach wipes, used as preventive measures
  • HVAC improvements and risk assessments in the school buildings
  • Short-term rental support program, administered by Somerville Homeless Coalition
  • Contact tracing staffing and consultant costs
  • Certain social distancing measures, such as plexiglas or air scrubbers for use in public-facing City departments
  • Increased Elections Department costs, incurred due to social distancing requirements and increased early voting
  • Virtual out-of-school programming for youth

3. American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Funds

While the public health emergency may be nearing the end, cities and towns will be dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 on their communities and residents for some time to come; the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was passed in recognition of this and provides $350 billion to help state, local, tribal, and territorial governments turn the corner on both the health crisis and begin the process of economic recovery. Somerville will receive approximately $61.7 million as a direct recipient of ARPA Coronavirus State & Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (CLFRF), plus additional funds from the Middlesex County allocation, offering us an unprecedented opportunity to meet both the immediate needs of our residents and businesses and also to address systemic and historic inequities to rebuild as a more resilient community. Funds must be obligated by the end of 2024, but can be spent through December 31, 2026.

The City will be conducting extensive internal and external assessments to prioritize needs for allocated CLFRF dollars. The external assessment work has already begun, with a community outreach workplan, workshops, and more in development.

At this point, the Treasury has released what they are calling “interim” guidance on how CLFRF dollars can be spent, and many government advisory groups and accounting and auditing firms assume there will be multiple rounds and iterations of Treasury guidance to come, based on experience with CvRF-MP funds.

For now, the CLFRF interim guidance stipulates that funds can be spent on the following:

  • To respond to the public health emergency or its negative economic impacts
  • To respond to essential work with premium pay
  • The provision of government services relating to the reduction in revenue
  • To make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure

We are currently using this baseline guidance, along with other documents published by the Treasury regarding CLFRF usage, to fund the following categories of FY22 Program Improvement Requests submitted by city staff:

  • Cybersecurity needs
  • Mental health and social service supports
  • Small business and other economic development supports
  • Technology and digital literacy needs
  • And others

This infusion of funds truly represents a once-in-a-lifetime investment in Somerville and it is of the utmost importance to the administration that the community has a voice in determining usage of funds, while also ensuring projects and programs are developed in a transparent and unbiased manner. Somerville will work with consultants to both document the entire planning process and to ensure administration of CLFRF dollars is in compliance with all federal and state reporting requirements.

4. Other Funding Sources:

The City of Somerville received other grant funds to help offset costs incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These include:

  • Mass. Department of Public Health’s Local Efforts for Coronavirus funding for nurse staffing costs, PPE purchases, tent rentals, COVID risk signage and flyers, COVID contact tracing technical support, and more - $342,334
  • Dept of Justice Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding, used for first responder overtime costs - $54,438
  • Mass. Board of Library Commissioners, for virtual programming - $3,418
  • MAPC’s Emergency COVID-19 Taxicab, Livery, and Hackney Partnership Grant, for increased transportation costs for vulnerable populations, including seniors and individuals with disabilities - $121,800
  • Center for Tech and Civic Life’s COVID-19 Response Grant for Elections Departments, for increased elections expenses - $53,437
  • HUD’s Community Development Block Grant and Emergency Solutions Grant Programs, increases to annual allocations, and Shared Streets funding, for additional support to standard eligible programmatic expenses - $3,754,625 and $133,930, respectively
  • COVID Stabilization Fund, appropriated by City Council to ensure sufficient funds were available for specific COVID-related purposes, including $5M for small business relief - $10,517,320
  • Somerville Public Schools’ various funding sources, including the ESSER I, II, and II funds, the School Reopening Grant, and the Remote Learning Technology Essentials Grant, which can be used for a variety of staffing, technology, and other needs - $12M

These funds have been, and will continue to be, essential to the City as it works to address the health and safety needs of our community as well as support residents and businesses to weather the economic and social impacts of the pandemic. While our emergency efforts are winding down, we know that our recovery efforts will be needed for years to come. We will be working hand in hand with the community over the summer to determine how to most effectively utilize our CLFRF funds to strengthen our community and address historic and systemic inequities while also making funds immediately available for pressing needs such as housing assistance and business relief.