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EDITORIAL

Congress failed Chelsea in COVID-19 relief law

President Biden’s huge economic relief package sends billions of dollars to cities and towns, but didn’t take into account the disparate impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Nery Martinez and Saviel Mieses, right, hold signs outside La Colaborativa while preparing for a protest in Chelsea, MA on March 16, 2021. More than 100 demonstrators rallied at City Hall to protest the amount of federal aid earmarked for the hard-hit city of Chelsea in the $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package. Led by staff and volunteers of the nonprofit La Colaborativa, protesters marched from the organization's Sixth Street food pantry, chanting in English and in Spanish their demands for more federal relief.
Nery Martinez and Saviel Mieses, right, hold signs outside La Colaborativa while preparing for a protest in Chelsea, MA on March 16, 2021. More than 100 demonstrators rallied at City Hall to protest the amount of federal aid earmarked for the hard-hit city of Chelsea in the $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package. Led by staff and volunteers of the nonprofit La Colaborativa, protesters marched from the organization's Sixth Street food pantry, chanting in English and in Spanish their demands for more federal relief.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Angry and betrayed.

That’s how leaders in Chelsea are feeling toward the Massachusetts congressional delegation, after learning the details of the recent coronavirus relief legislation. And no wonder: Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, and Representative Ayanna Pressley, failed the hard-hit city big time, leaving a mess that Governor Baker pledged Thursday to clean up.

The pandemic inflicted devastating consequences on cities and towns, and the federal COVID-19 relief bill sends them money to help recover. There’s no place in Massachusetts that needs the aid more than Chelsea, where virus infection rates have consistently been among the highest statewide throughout the pandemic. Roughly 20 percent of residents have had the virus, but city officials say that’s probably an undercount. The unemployment rate — which last summer went above 20 percent for a few months — was 9.3 percent in January.

But to the disbelief of Chelsea and a few other of the neediest cities in the Commonwealth, Democratic lawmakers ignored those needs when they divided up the money, instead using an antiquated formula borrowed from an unrelated federal program.

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As a result, the city was expected to receive only $11.6 million in direct aid from the latest federal relief law. That’s not enough, but what’s really outrageous is how much more Congress sent to wealthier communities. By comparison, Brookline’s estimate (with a population of around 59,000) is $34.2 million and Newton’s (with a population of around 88,000) is $65.3 million; both towns had a much lower impact from COVID in addition to greater resources. Pittsfield and Fitchburg, which are of comparable population size to Chelsea, at around 39,000, were slated to get $41.6 million and $32.7 million, respectively. On a per-person basis, Chelsea got the exact same amount as wealthy towns like Manchester-by-the-Sea that suffered minimal COVID-19 impacts.

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There’s no doubt that, on the whole, the legislation, which also increases unemployment benefits and sends a check of up to $1,400 to individuals, provides a welcome economic boost. But there’s something wrong with a rescue package that doesn’t focus on the neediest families and communities, the ones most harmed by the pandemic.

Upon learning about the paltry sum of money that Chelsea is receiving in direct aid, Gladys Vega, the executive director of Chelsea’s La Colaborativa, a social services nonprofit, said she felt as if the stories and suffering of her city — a heavily Latino enclave whose population has historically been undercounted — “were not sad enough for our federal delegation,” she said in an interview in Spanish with the Globe editorial board. “You mean to tell me you were OK with Chelsea getting $11 million? And expected Chelsea to be OK with that?” Last Tuesday, La Colaborativa led a march in Chelsea to protest the small amount of federal relief and demand more.

Sadly, three other Massachusetts municipalities that the state considers most affected by the pandemic were also shortchanged so badly that the Baker administration has had to step in. Randolph was slated to get approximately $3.9 million, while Everett and Methuen were set to receive $13.6 million and $14.8 million, respectively.

But why did this happen to begin with? Instead of creating a formula that took into account COVID-19′s disparate impact on different communities, Congress mostly relied on an economic development program created in the 1970s that uses a complex formula to competitively grant funds to cities and towns. The program treats communities with at least 50,000 residents (Brookline and Newton, for instance) differently than those that are under that threshold (such as Chelsea), and makes them eligible for far more funds.

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“This is the only national formula that exists for distributing money to cities and towns,” said Geoff Beckwith, the executive director of Massachusetts Municipal Association, which calculated the local aid estimates. But the program, which considers population, density, age of housing stock, and other factors, had never been used at this scale — or for this purpose.

“You can’t use that formula as a proxy of need,” said Tom Ambrosino, Chelsea’s city manager. “This old formula has nothing to do with COVID, so it’s a little odd” to use it, he said. “There are some really smart people in Congress.” Why not design a new formula that took into account “virus transmission in a community, or cases and/or deaths per 100,000 people?” Ambrosino asked.

It seems lawmakers feared that devising a new formula would have taken time and delayed passage of the whole emergency stimulus package. Pressley, whose district includes Chelsea, Everett, and Randolph, said in an interview that the formula is “imperfect but it was an improvement over [distributing] strictly on a per capita” basis. “Confusion abounds” about the municipal funds, as well as anger, she said. “And I share the anger.”

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Pressley said the funds “don’t represent anywhere near the entirety of the relief funding.” They were intended “as a down payment,” she said. It’s why Pressley, Markey, and Warren, after failing to do so themselves, urged Baker to redirect part of the state’s $4.5 billion in federal direct aid allocation to disproportionately affected cities like Chelsea. Baker took a step in that direction Thursday, announcing that the state would earmark $100 million for the four municipalities, though he didn’t go into detail about how much would go to each.

The money is certainly needed. A community impact survey conducted by La Colaborativa in Chelsea found that nearly half of participants lost their jobs and an additional 20 percent lost a significant number of hours. A third of those surveyed owe rent and 9 percent did not have health insurance. The city has the highest rate of overcrowded housing in the state and half of its workforce are essential workers.

Ultimately, this dispute is not simply about dollar figures — it’s about priorities. Yes, Baker should do what he can. But leaving the equity to him and the 49 other governors was a mistake. As influential members of the party that controls Congress, the city’s senators and representative should have made it a priority when they had the chance.

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Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.