Meriden Panel Supports Funding for Concert Series and Physician Assistant Program

MERIDEN – Proposals to use the city’s COVID-19 relief funds to support a local non-profit group’s annual summer concert series on the Meriden Green and to support an expanded concert training program medical assistant for city residents were both recommended for funding by the American Rescue Plan Committee this week.

The committee is responsible for reviewing applications for funding through the city’s allocation of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. Proposals submitted so far for the committee’s consideration have come from city departments, as well as non-profit organizations and businesses based in the city.

On Monday night, the committee discussed and ultimately approved Restore with the Arts’ request for funding to support its Twilight Summer Concert Series program. The organization presented a five-year plan, seeking total funding of $88,124 over that period.

The committee also reviewed and discussed Community Health Center Inc.’s proposal to expand its current physician assistant training program to enroll more non-traditional students seeking health care careers in the over the next two years. Ultimately, the committee backed the proposal with reduced funding. The committee recommended funding it at $385,724. CHC’s claim requested $478,724.

Under Restore with the Arts’ proposal, the organization is looking to expand its presence, including live streaming future concerts to allow residents unable to attend in person to enjoy those performances.

The group said in its application that the funding would “allow us to expand our footprint in the city and surrounding towns by modernizing our operation. We seek to reinvest the amount we have saved through the grant back into the organization. This will bring us that much closer to achieving our goal of bringing music on the green into the homes of those who can’t be there in person.

The budget breakdown presented by the band included the costs of musicians, sound and web support. This year’s 11-week series cost $15,540 to hold. The group factored in annual increases in the cost of living of just over 1% each year to calculate future cost estimates and arrived at their total of $88,124.

However, the city’s chief financial officer, Kevin McNabola, noted that, based on ARPA’s federal funding rules, certain elements of the application may not be eligible for funding – including payment of fees for performing groups – after December 31, 2024. Such payments to performers would be considered salary.

Dave Grodzicki, vice president and treasurer of Restore with the Arts, said the funding will strengthen the organization’s ability to improve the quality of entertainment it provides.

“We are a proven asset to our city that positively lights up our community,” Grodzicki said.

Committee members spoke in favor of the proposal, while raising concerns about how the funding would be used in future years and whether the program would continue through other sources of funding.

“Looking to the future, beyond these next few years, how are you maintaining the program? What are your means to continue to grow? Mayor Kevin Scarpati asked Grodzicki.

Grodzicki replied that the organization was looking for more vendors as well as younger people to join as members.

Scarpati described the summer concert series as having been a huge success. “It obviously attracts people from the city center. It was a huge success and I loved watching it grow,” the mayor said.

“…I would really like to see fundraising increase, for you to top up those dollars. Let’s introduce bigger acts and expand beyond 11 weeks,” Scarpati said.

Councilman Michael Carabetta, vice-chairman of the committee, thanked the organization for “bringing this to downtown.”

However, he had concerns about the breakdown of the budget, before the city committed funds.

“We would need that to be a bit more detailed,” Carabetta said.

Medical Assistance Program

Meanwhile, the CHC proposal received more questions from committee members. Ultimately, the committee voted to change the amount of funding it would recommend for the program. The committee recommended funding it at $385,724. CHC, in its application, had requested $478,724.

During the committee’s review of the application, representatives of the not-for-profit health care provider acknowledged that some of the funding items in the proposal were based on estimates – for example, transportation and internet access for potential program recruits.

The request sets out a goal to train 15 new medical assistants over a two-year period that includes three separate 29-week training periods. Five students would be trained and later tested to become certified medical assistants during each of these training sessions.

The community health center currently provides medical care to 93% of the city’s low-income population, according to information shared in the center’s app. The center also runs 16 school health centers in the city.

“CHC has a strong interest in creating opportunities for sustainable healthcare careers and responding to the negative impact the community is currently facing as a result of the pandemic,” the center’s request said. Six years ago, the center co-founded and partnered with the National Institute for Medical Assistant Advancement, a program that now partners with more than 50 organizations in 14 states.

The app aims to address labor shortages in healthcare, as well as reduce high unemployment rates in the city.

“Participants will prepare for the certification exam which will increase pathways to employment in community health centers and other healthcare providers. CHC’s proposed project covers tuition, fees, laptops, internet access, transportation, and child care,” the application states. In addition to covering tuition, the proposal would also have funded a full-time program coordinator, as well as funding existing staff to serve as on-site supervisors for the program.

“Through this program, CHC directly provides non-traditional students with the opportunity to obtain an accredited position leading to a career in health care,” the application states.

The CHC cited employment data to highlight the existing unemployment issues facing Meriden. The city’s unemployment rate “nearly quadrupled” in the first half of 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The city’s current unemployment rate of 5.5% is still higher than it was in December 2019, when it was 3.7%, according to the CHC app.

The center said the pandemic “has compounded pre-existing unemployment problems” in Meriden, with low-income unemployed workers continuing “to struggle to find employment resources that will lead them to self-sufficiency.”

The CHC’s request also noted that the pandemic “has exacerbated the continued shortage of healthcare workers, leaving many healthcare facilities short-staffed even as COVID cases decline.” Critical staffing shortages could compromise access to care in our community.

The center’s request describes the present moment as “an opportune time to inspire the unemployed to become certified medical assistants.” Once trained, they have a pathway to employment at federally licensed healthcare centers and other healthcare providers to gain financial stability and contribute to Meriden’s long-term economic recovery.

Mary Blankson, CHC’s chief nursing officer, described the proposal as a jobs program for the city.

Amy Taylor, Vice President for the Central West Region, described it as a proposal that targets displaced workers from other industries, who are “taking their first step into health care”.

The program would be offered tuition-free, providing its participants with “skills that would enable them to seek careers” in what Taylor described as one of the largest employment sectors in the state.

Committee members were generally supportive of the proposal, but questioned the overall funding request and asked for additional details about the agency’s proposed program.

Sustainability

Scarpati posed a series of questions about the sustainability of the program and whether it requires input from participating students. Scarpati said he was concerned about how students would be invested without having to make their own investment, for example, through tuition fees or some other contribution.

“What funding is provided for students who were to enroll in one of these programs? Scarpati asked, later adding, “What funding does CHC provide?”

Taylor replied that the students don’t pay anything.

“We really want to see these students succeed,” she said, adding that the program also seeks to provide non-economic barriers, like childcare and other forms of support.

Scarpati said his fear of providing the full amount of a funding request, such as the one submitted by CHC, is: “Are we setting you up for failure? Is it so much that you wouldn’t be able to support it without ARPA funds?

City Manager Timothy Coon asked if the scheme would come with any income restrictions, saying he was hesitant to support it without such restrictions in place.

CHC officials have said they may impose these types of restrictions on the program.

Carabetta was concerned about the scale of the funding request, noting that it would only benefit 15 residents. Retaining employees after their training “is very difficult,” he added.

“It can be good money after bad. The size of the request is quite large,” he said, adding, “I appreciate everything you do,” regarding the work of the community health center itself.

Prior to the two nominees’ presentations, Coon updated the committee on the status of the city’s ARPA funds to date. Of the more than $36.3 million received by the city, more than $9.6 million is currently available to fund requests like the requests the committee considered Monday night.

The city previously organized funding requests into four categories: infrastructure, public health, economic recovery and development, and others.

Coon, in response to a question from Scarpati, said the committee could reallocate the amount of funds allocated to each of these expense categories.

Based on the funding the city previously allocated to each of these categories, the city still has $5.8 million to spend on public health and just under $1.9 million to spend on economic recovery. The “other” category has just over $2 million in funding to spend. Meanwhile, the city exceeded its previously imposed limit on infrastructure spending by about $210,000, Coon told the committee.

mgagne@record-journal.com203-317-2231Twitter:@MikeGagneRJ

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