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Shaheen touts COVID relief funds for Dover, Portsmouth, Rochester, Somersworth

DOVER — Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, appeared Monday with four Seacoast mayors at City Hall to discuss how the American Rescue Plan will provide New Hampshire with more than $3 billion in combined financial relief for residents and local governments.

The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, which was recently passed into law, supplies New Hampshire more than $1.5 billion in funding through state and local aid and just under $1.5 billion in stimulus payments that nearly 600,000 Granite Staters have received or will receive.

The senator's message to the Seacoast communities of Portsmouth, Dover, Rochester and Somersworth was clear: Relief is on the way. However, there isn't a clear timeline on when those funds will be available or how much money each city will receive.

Shaheen said the specific dollar amount each community's municipal government will receive is still being assessed by need. She assured the mayors present as a state, New Hampshire will "receive more federal assistance under the American Rescue Plan than it has under any previous COVID-19 relief proposal, including the CARES Act passed almost a year ago."

"While the issues may be different, whether it's Dover, Somersworth, Rochester or Portsmouth, the fact is that everyone has said the same thing: our communities need help, and they need it yesterday," Shaheen said. "I'm going to continue to work with this administration in Washington D.C., so the federal dollars are delivered to New Hampshire, and to see that they're distributed throughout the state as swiftly as possible."

Shaheen said the American Rescue Plan contains billions of dollars for communities like the Tri-Cities and Portsmouth to help them overcome severe budget shortfalls and afford to continue to offer adequate education, health care and public safety. 

"We're going to help our communities, all of us, as we stand together," Dover Mayor Bob Carrier said.

The American Rescue Plan will provide relief to stimulate different areas across the local economy. Shaheen announced there is at least $350.5 million set aside to help schools safety reopen, $40.9 million to help expand COVID-19 testing in Granite State schools, as well as $20.2 million for community health centers to expand access to vaccines, and other funds that will help communities address concerns of mental health, substance abuse, low income, child care, loss of insurance, homelessness and infrastructure needs.

The plan also gives mayors and municipalities more flexibility to spend the federal relief dollars based on town-specific needs. 

"The American Rescue Plan is designed to help address the most comprehensive COVID-19 relief legislation that we've seen today," Shaheen said. "It's the local leaders who understand what their most pressing concerns are so they should be able to make those changes."

For the cities of Portsmouth, Dover and Rochester, funds will be directly distributed soon. Somersworth's funds, since the city does now partake in the the Community Development Block Grant Program, will be distributed through the state like other municipal funds within 30 days of the state receiving them.

Shaheen said the hope with the rescue plan is to distribute funds to communities quickly, which can also ease the tax burden on communities since the flexibility clause allows the cities to help replace lost revenue and reimburse fronted costs. There are also a number of tax credits in the proposal like the child tax credit, an employer tax credit that employers can use to help keep employees on the payroll, the earned income tax credit, and provisions to help with the cost of health insurance for families that lost their income. 

Three of the biggest focus areas for the senator and these Seacoast mayors that will be addressed through this funding include help for education, homelessness and physical and mental health care. 

"We have a fairly significant homeless population in our community," Rochester Mayor Caroline McCarley said. "We have a lot of folks who live on low and moderate income that struggle day to day, rent check to rent check. I was particularly pleased with, as the senator mentioned, money for substance misuse and mental illness because homelessness, housing instability and mental health are so incredibly tied together."

Carrier, Somersworth Mayor Dana Hilliard and Portsmouth Mayor Rick Becksted echoed similar remarks that their communities feel represented in this plan, because of the many hours the mayors spent with Shaheen, discussing their communities' individual and collective needs.

"Today we continue our recovery," Hilliard said. "We continue our progress, and we continue to offer hope and support under the guidance of the American rescue plan. We're excited as we begin to see the light guiding us toward the end of the pandemic."

The safe return of Seacoast students to in-person learning is something each city wants to see happen.

"In most schools throughout New Hampshire right now, their educators are doing deep dives on the data across the board, and being able to plan when the dollars come in, how you can extend learning," said Hilliard, who is also a school administrator. "How can we capture these students, not just sitting in a classroom for a month over the summer, but utilize unique (extended learning) opportunities."