Reps. Sibilia & Sims: Vermont needs to address its rural capacity gap

Right now, towns in Vermont are faced with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. With the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021, Vermont was allocated approximately $1.05 billion in State Fiscal Recovery Fund dollars to promote resiliency and sustainability. 

Vermont legislators and the administration have worked together to focus investments in the areas of economic development; housing; water, sewer and wastewater infrastructure; climate change mitigation; and broadband.

But this money isn’t free, of course. 

Ann Lawless of Caledonia County illustrates at recent ARPA funding meeting: “In order for this injection of dollars to really make a difference for Wheelock, someone would need to conceptualize the project, rally the entire community’s support, research and create a plan, apply for a number of other grants, carry out the administration requirements, and manage the project itself — all on a deadline. That’s hard when we’re a small town reliant on volunteers.”

141 — 56% of the towns in Vermont — don’t have a town manager or administrator. Technical assistance organizations are struggling to meet the demand. And no free consultation or how-to toolkit can solve the scarcity of human capacity in Vermont’s most economically disadvantaged towns, the towns that need this funding the most.

With nearly 90% of Vermonters living in towns of fewer than 5,000 people, small towns are the backbone of Vermont, sustaining our reputation for a natural working landscape, thriving local food scene, and strong sense of community. 

The smallest and most economically disadvantaged towns face a disproportionate lack of access to critical services like health care, child care, housing and the internet. On top of meeting basic needs, these towns (like all towns) must adapt to a changing climate, attract and retain workers, and navigate lasting impacts of the pandemic.

Without the paid county government, expansive state presence or population density of larger towns, residents in these towns often rely on part-time local officials and volunteer select boards to make their towns work. null

The communities with the greatest need have the least capacity. 

If towns miss this opportunity to access the ARPA funding due to inadequate capacity, they risk becoming frozen in time and we risk losing all they contribute to the health and identity of Vermont.

During the 2023 session, we and our fellow legislators must develop a statewide system that enables vulnerable, underserved communities to access this funding, engage their communities and bring high-impact projects to life by incentivizing regional collaboration and funding adequate capacity at the local level in our most stressed small towns. Because rural Vermont is Vermont.

This commentary is by Reps. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, and Katherine Sims, D-Craftsbury, who are returning leaders of the nonpartisan Vermont House of Representatives Rural Caucus.

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