COVID relief and the small town of Scottsville
This week we’ve been taking a road trip across the state. We’ve been hearing what local governments have done with their COVID relief dollars. There’s been a new community grocery store, a new elementary school, a new bus line.
We wrap up today with a tour of Scottsville, south of Charlottesville, where the infusion of federal cash showed one small town manager the way things could be…
Matt Lawless is town manager of Scottsville. We started our tour at Town Hall – where the largest chunk of money was spent on creating a new DMV service center for car registrations, hunting licenses and more.
“This is a service that we didn't have before,” Lawless says. “We paid the carpenters to build this space. You've got supplies and equipment purchases, and then hiring local staff to do this work. So, I'm proud that we've been able to achieve that.”
“That DMV is at risk,” Lawless continues. “It runs on commission paid back from the services done through the state government. And it hasn't become a profit center yet. We hope that it will in the longer term, but it's not right now. So, the end of the federal funding really forces a choice on us. Do we want to continue to sustain this operation at a loss in the hopes of providing a better long-term service? Or is it time to terminate it?”
“How big is Scottsville,” asks reporter Mallory Noe-Payne.
“We have 600 residents within our town limits. But it's also the community hub for a historic rural area that goes into three counties and our market,” Lawless says. “So, a lot of the work that we're doing benefits them to not just the town residents once.”
“One of the things that Scottsville did with a bit of the ARPA funding was match a state grant called Community Business launch. Terry Butler, who runs this business, had done dressmaking and bridal work on the side, but had never run it as a full-time business,” continues Lawless. “So, the grant paid for her to take a small business bootcamp class and existing local business owners in town, judged her one of the winners and awarded her $15,000 to help start this business.”
“Do you remember when you knew this money was going to be coming down the pike, and what your first thought was,” Noe-Payne asks.
“Confidence and excitement and hope,” Lawless says. “It provided a sense of stability, that the federal support was there, and a small town wasn't going to be out on our own, struggling with the uncertainty of pandemic and having to make really difficult choices without help.”
“Where are we now,” asks Noe-Payne.
“This thing. This is the town's flood control system,” says Lawless. “Scottsville has a history of serious repeated flooding from the James River. So, one of the things that we did with our ARPA funding was match a state grant to improve the emergency alerts.”
“It provided a sense of stability, that the federal support was there, and a small town wasn't going to be out on our own."
“Is that something you guys would have been able to afford,” asks Noe-Payne. “When do you think you would have been able to come around to that?”
“We would have gotten there, but it would have taken longer,” Lawless replies. “And we would have been forced to choose between the emergency alerts and the police body cameras, and picnic tables in the parks. And with the federal support, we were able to do all of those things in the past two years.”
Noe-Payne asks, “Would you say that Scottsville is under-resourced?”
“Yes,” Lawless says. “Our budget, in some ways looks more like a bootstrap nonprofit than a large local government. We can't issue bonds. We don't have strong commercial banking relationships.
The local demographics, economy and tax base are what they are. The policy answers are often there, and small rural localities just can’t provide the solutions that they know are right. And federal agencies could do more to help with that.
So, our APRA shows the potential of a tweaked federalism and provide more structural help to communities like this.”
That was now former Scottsville town manager Matt Lawless. An update since my tour. Town Council chose to close its DMV service because of a lack of funds.