Antiquated methods of divvying up federal funds have left some of Massachusetts’ hardest-hit communities getting millions of dollars less than neighboring cities in the new federal relief law.
Chelsea — one of the cities most devastated by the pandemic — is getting just $11.6 million in direct aid through the federal package, while nearby Revere will see $30.5 million, according to estimates from the Massachusetts Municipal Association. Everett is set to receive $13.6 million, the estimates show.
Meanwhile, wealthier, whiter enclaves are slated to receive much more — $65.3 million for Newton, for example.
One reason for the huge disparities: a critical 50,000-person threshold used in some federal funding decisions. Chelsea (just shy of 40,000 people) falls under that mark, as does Everett, meaning they are excluded from a federal program that would have qualified them for far more funds. Revere (population 53,000) is in that program. And Newton far exceeds the benchmark, meaning it will see more federal dollars despite being less affected than some of its neighbors.
Local leaders and advocates in cities where the coronavirus has killed hundreds and wrought unspeakable economic damage called it unconscionable that the relief package did not link funding more directly to the scale of COVID-related harm.
On Thursday, Governor Charlie Baker pledged to target additional funding to Chelsea, Everett, Methuen, and Randolph, four communities that were among the state’s most battered by the pandemic but didn’t qualify for as much federal aid. But his office did not say how much the state plans to send the cities.
Chelsea City Manager Thomas Ambrosino estimated it would cost $75 million to $100 million to treat the four cities fairly.
“This isn’t an inexpensive fix . . . but it’s the equitable fix,” Ambrosino said. “Diverting $100 million to solve a real equity problem — an appalling formula distribution when it came to these four communities — I don’t think that’s too big an ask.”
Ambrosino added that he was grateful to Baker for looking to resolve “a problem not of his own making.”
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which President Biden signed last week, includes billions of dollars in direct aid to local governments, money that can be spent to make up for lost revenue, boost local businesses, and fund essential infrastructure expenses. But the funding was distributed based in part on the federal government’s decades-old Community Development Block Grant formula, which resulted in some cities with populations under 50,000 receiving far less money than their not-much-bigger neighbors.
In Chelsea, a small city mourning well over 200 coronavirus deaths, more than 100 people took to the streets this week to protest the allocation.
The funding formula “does not adequately consider the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on cities such as Everett,” Mayor Carlo DeMaria of Everett said. He said he is “optimistic that the state will provide us with the financial relief our community deserves.”
It was Congress that devised and approved the relief package. But once it passed, local leaders, community advocates, and even federal lawmakers who had voted for the package said it fell to Baker to address the disparities.
Local leaders said they were grateful the governor was willing to boost their funding, but did not know Thursday how much the state would provide.
“The Baker-Polito administration cannot speak to why Congress designed the federal relief package in this way,” a spokesman for the governor said, but “after hearing directly from community leaders, the governor plans to distribute more funding to these cities to make up for the issues these hard-hit communities are experiencing as a result of Congress’s funding restrictions.”
The new funding for Chelsea, Methuen, Everett, and Randolph will come on top of more than $60 million the administration has already directed to those cities, a Baker spokesman said. As part of the relief package, Massachusetts received billions in federal dollars earmarked for schools and transportation, as well as $4.5 billion that state leaders have wide discretion on how to spend.
State Senator Sal DiDomenico, who represents Everett and Chelsea, said he has been working with members of the congressional delegation, as well as the Baker administration, to tap into the state’s allocation to supplement the cities’ funding. “All parties agree that the number is inadequate,” he said, but there hasn’t yet been an agreement on what new number would be fair.
Local leaders said they brought the funding discrepancies to the attention of their members of Congress before the bill became law, but were told it was too late to meaningfully alter the sprawling, fast-moving legislation.
Ambrosino said he spoke directly with Senator Ed Markey, “who was trying his best to help us, but was just constrained by the rules of the Senate.”
Dinanyili Paulino,chief operating officer for the Chelsea-based nonprofit La Colaborativa, said she felt “betrayed by the [congressional] delegation.”
“They definitely let us down this time,” she said, speaking from a local food pantry where she said families who had recently been evicted were waiting in line with their bags. “This is a city that has been in desperate need.”
Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Boston Democrat who represents Chelsea, Everett, and Randolph, said, “Communities in the Massachusetts Seventh are struggling and their frustration in the midst of this crisis is justified.”
“We fought for language in the American Rescue Plan that directs governors to distribute more federal resources directly to hardest hit cities,’' Pressley said, adding that she was urging Baker to “do so swiftly.’'
To devise funding allocations, the relief bill relied on a version of a formula used for the federal block grant program, which designates 37 Massachusetts cities and towns, including Boston, Lynn, and Plymouth, as “entitlement communities.” It does not include vulnerable places like Chelsea and Everett, where the official population tally falls under 50,000, but does still include cities like Arlington and Gloucester, which previously met the requirements. Typically, the program relies on the state to administer funds to the smaller cities.
That partially explains why Gloucester, population 30,430, is getting $8 million more than Methuen, its far-larger Essex County neighbor, according to current estimates. It was not immediately clear why Methuen, whose population just exceeds 50,000, does not qualify as an entitlement city, and city officials did not return requests for comment.
Furthermore, advocates said, immigrant communities in cities like Chelsea are likely undercounted in the census. Local officials in Chelsea and Everett estimate their true populations likely exceed the 50,000 threshold.
The method of deciding funding was “already unfair,” but the relief package magnified its impacts, said Rafael Mares, executive director of The Neighborhood Developers, a community development organization serving Chelsea, Revere, and Everett.
“You increase the funding significantly, it increases the inequity built into the system that has not been addressed,” Mares said.
It’s not surprising that Congress relied on this distribution structure as it tried to quickly pass the legislation, said Brett Theodos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute think tank who focuses on economic community development. The same block grant allocation model is often used for disaster funding, he said.
“These are the tracks that we have laid, so this is the rail that we send the train down. This is not to say that path is the best for every economic or natural disaster,” Theodos said.
Nearly the entire congressional delegation wrote to Baker on Thursday urging him to target the state’s portion of the relief package to “those communities that are in desperate need of relief.” They also wrote to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, asking her to use her discretion to help the hard-hit cities and seeking “maximum funding flexibility” for the state to aid them, too.
Jim Puzzanghera of the Globe staff contributed to this report.