FILE - MA Pittsfield downtown 4-23-2003

Downtown storefronts are seen long North Street on April 23, 2003, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

(The Center Square) – Funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help rural Massachusetts, particularly the four counties of the western part of the state, state auditor Suzanne Bump told lawmakers Tuesday.

The Legislature's Joint Ways and Means Committee held its final public hearing Tuesday on ARPA funds, and lawmakers are hoping to draw up a plan on how to distribute those funds by Thanksgiving.

Burns said the 101 towns of the four western counties, Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire, were hit hard after paper and textile mills left.

“The result is cash-strapped towns, with shrinking populations and labor forces, declining property values, maxed out tax levy capacity, and crumbling public infrastructure, all of which are detriments to the civic health of these communities and deterrents to the private capital investment necessary to reverse these demographic and economic trends,” Burns told the committee.

The towns have few places to turn as municipal programs are underfunded, Burns said.

“Take STRAP, the Small Town Road Assistance Program, part of the very popular MassWorks program at MassDOT,” Burns said. “Available to towns with populations under 7,000 on a competitive basis, it has a cap on awards of $1 million. With the average culvert replacement project costing about $850,000, STRAP is of limited value.”

Chapter 90 grant funds are based on outdated formulas and the funding must also increase, Burns said.

“As for assistance for other municipal infrastructure, like town halls, senior centers, public works barns, and police and fire stations, there is no state support, apart from the occasional legislative earmark,” Burns testified.

The programs could also be subject to “historic levels of fraud, waste, and abuse,” and Burns said her office, the attorney general, the inspector general, the state comptroller are setting aside monies to investigate misspending.

She noted that a decade ago, then-Gov. Deval Patrick set aside resources to those agencies on a temporary basis.

“Following completion of the projects, the Government Accountability Office identified Massachusetts as a model of transparency and oversight,” Burns said. “With the Governor’s central office dedicated to administering the federal aid and the spending website, we now have in place two of the three legs that supported that model. Missing is the financing for 'rigorous and independent oversight.'”

Burns added budgetary limitations prohibit her from devoting staff only to pandemic relief program auditing.

“The reserve fund is modeled on that created for the Hinton Lab drug-testing scandal,” Burns said. “That fund enabled multiple parties to access the funding needed to conduct their respective investigations. We believe it to be a workable model that would support our efforts.”