READING – Appearing before the Select Board in February 2021, the Recreation Department presented an ambitious plan to redesign Birch Meadow. After hearing about new grass pitches, restrooms, pickleball courts, and improved sidewalks, among other things, former city manager Bob LeLacheur described what the city would need to make this a reality.
“Somebody wins the lottery,” LeLacheur said, throwing a bucket of reality at the presentation.
Based on Tuesday’s fourth Reading ARPA Advisory Committee (RAAC) meeting, LeLacheur may have granted his wish. Lottery, no. But part of the city’s $7.25 million in ARPA funds? That’s a definite possibility.
Genevieve Fiorente, Recreation Administrator, joined consultant Stephen Crisafulli in proposing that the city should spend approximately $1.7 million to start Phase 1 of the project. That means three parts, creating a central walkway with bathrooms, a lacrosse wall and Imagination Station parking lot, and restoring wetlands.
The idea was well received by RAAC members, save for one issue that every city project seems to haunt, parking. Implementation of the full Birch Meadow Master Plan, first discussed in 2007, would add parking to the area. However, there are concerns that repairing and/or paving the Imagination Station area without working on other areas would result in a temporary loss of parking.
“I can safely get behind the central artery,” said Tom Wise, who represents the school committee on the eight-member committee. But Wise and others were concerned about the loss of parking space.
Fiorente said she would get an estimate of the exact number of rooms they were talking about and bring them to a future meeting. Those familiar with the property know it as a rock-filled area with no organized parking system. Drivers basically park wherever they want and others fill in. Add in the uncertainty of how much buffer space the wetlands along the Aberjona River will need, figuring out how many cars will fit there will be a challenge.
There were other challenges Tuesday as the committee debated and tried to prioritize other spending ideas, all with costs that were mostly educated guesses. It all started with the group’s conversation starter, Chair Marianne Downing, who is also a member of the Finance Committee.
Using a gavel she bought for $13.56 for a 1994 costume party, Downing presented the group with themes, diagrams and suggestions. While the start rarely reflected the goal, Downing’s homework prompted a discussion that helped committee members focus on solutions.
Their pie chart identified eight potential areas where the ARPA funds could be spent. Then she broke down each area with a more detailed table. The chart included costs that she said were “really rough numbers.” Another time, she said of the numbers, “These won’t be accurate.” And another time, “No one really knows what anything is going to cost.”
But each chart prompted a discussion that helped the group narrow down options. The total of $6,895,000 in the capital and infrastructure table prompted further discussion with City Manager Fidel Maltez about the $1.1 million the city needs for water line repairs.
A school chart containing requests totaling $1,912,000 prompted a discussion of specific time-sensitive needs. Wise said he expects the school committee to have a specific “request” in May for next year’s needs. These curriculum requirements were approved by Superintendent Dr. Tom Milaschewski explained at the RAAC meeting last month.
Downing’s charts were the result of committee inquiries, police and fire department inquiries, basic conversations, as well as unfunded items from the fiscal year 2023 budget. Some items were non-chargeable, such as the cost of adding a first-floor bathroom at Pleasant Street Center. Others weren’t, such as $150,000 for parking at Lot 5 in Meadow Brook. Mark Dockser said the money came from a state earmarking and ARPA funds were not needed.
A quick tally of the various requests listed in the RAAC meeting package brings the total to $15,375,500. Remember that you only have to spend $7.25 million.
The charts also led to a discussion on how best to categorize the projects/needs. Which are shovel ready? What helps most residents? ARPA funds must be spent by December 2026, so long-term projects do not need to apply. And that discussion led to another in the citywide survey the committee will be asking residents to fill out next month.
A similar poll was conducted by Sudbury and RAAC member Chris Haley called it “the Rolls Royce of polls”. But it was done by Flashvote at a cost of $10,000. The committee decided it could do the same for free, and Maltez will enlist city employees to create a poll monkey, which will be shown to the committee and completed at its next May 11 meeting. The aim is to carry out the survey later in front of the residents. Be prepared to answer how you would spend $100 around town.
In addition to the recovery motion, a new hand was raised on Tuesday with the Reading-North Reading Chamber of Commerce demanding $105,000 in support of local businesses hit by the pandemic. Committee members asked if North Reading would consider sharing the cost of the chamber motion and Maltez will pursue a response.
In addition, Reading Rotary stood before the committee asking for help at the annual Fall Street Faire. The biggest expense for Rotary is the work of the police and the DPW. And Richard Abate, President of the Reading Police Supervisory Association, also urged the committee to consider repaying the salaries of key police, fire and dispatch workers. He made the same application to the Select Board earlier this year.
ARPA stands for American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion federal program that was signed into law a year ago. It aims to help states and local governments recover from the health pandemic. Reading’s piece of the pie was approximately $7.6 million. That number dropped to $7.25 million when the Select Board authorized LeLacheur to use around $250,000 to purchase Covid test kits and masks last year.
This money cannot simply be spent anywhere. It must be spent on one-off expenses related to Covid-19. There are many opinions as to what the money should be spent on and this is where RAAC comes in. RAAC serves as the advisory committee to the Reading Select Board. Only the Select Board can actually spend the money.
The Service of Elders was also due to make a presentation on Tuesday but was asked to wait until the May 11 meeting. This presentation will certainly include a discussion of the possibility of a new senior/community center.