By Josh Keefe, Bangor Daily News Staff Penobscot County, Maine, and Stafford County, Va. Are home to just over 151,000 people. Because they have roughly the same population, each is expected to receive $ 29 million in federal assistance under the $ 1.
By Josh Keefe, Bangor Daily News Staff
Penobscot County, Maine, and Stafford County, Virginia, are home to just over 151,000 people. Because they have roughly the same population, each is expected to receive $ 29 million in federal aid as part of the $ 1.9 trillion American rescue plan.
But the size of governments is radically different: Penobscot spent about $ 23 million in 2021, while suburban Washington, DC, county spent $ 320 million, roughly 14 times as much, illustrating the windfall for County governments that are weak by design in Maine. .
With $ 260 million over two years, Maine’s often overlooked counties now have to choose whether to spend it on investment projects and traditional services like jail and sheriff department oversight or expanding their civic roles. limited to fund regional projects that have typically been managed by the state and municipalities of Maine.
Advocates are pushing counties to think bigger as they begin to allocate money. County officials are both planning broader regional partnerships and looking to spend on essential functions, but all stress the need to invest carefully as this opportunity is unlikely to be repeated.
“The formula has been of great benefit to Penobscot County,” said Penobscot County Commissioner Peter Baldacci. “But we don’t want to rush into plans without them being well thought out. We don’t expect anything like this in the near future. “
County officials are reluctant to launch programs or services with one-time money that will require tax revenue to keep operating. They must also operate under written federal rules for large counties with much more staff who typically provide more services, such as essential public health, infrastructure, or recreation functions. This limits how Maine counties can spend.
To date, counties in Maine have spent little money, with much of what has been spent going towards premium pay for employees. They only got half of their total allowances, with the rest coming next year. The US Treasury also has not finalized the rules on eligible projects, although it has described public health, addressing the negative economic effects of the pandemic, aid to businesses and water infrastructure, sewer and broadband as eligible expenses.
For administrators like Ryan Pelletier of Aroostook County, making sure that the money goes as far as possible is a primary objective. He hopes to leverage the $ 13 million his county is expected to receive in order to generate $ 26 million in investment, he said.
As part of that effort, the county got about 40 of its municipalities to agree to contribute 2% of their stimulus funds to fund a county position solely dedicated to administering US bailout funds over the years. coming years. Several other counties, including Penobscot, York, Cumberland, Oxford and Piscataquis, have either hired staff or hired outside consultants to help administer the funds for the US bailout.
Aroostook County is one of many counties that are also developing a process that would allow community organizations to apply for funding grants. Many counties are also setting up portals and community meetings to generate ideas and feedback from community members.
This process was necessary in part because of the smaller role of county government in Maine and the rest of New England, Pelletier said. For example, Rhode Island and Connecticut do not have county governments, so money earmarked for counties in those states goes to municipalities.
“I think this thing was designed at the national level without really thinking about the fact that county governments in each state work differently,” Pelletier said.
Capital improvement projects, like repairing prisons or other county buildings, are attractive to budget-conscious public servants because they are a one-time expense. Federal funding potentially provides counties with the ability to undertake projects that they would generally have to borrow to afford.
Many prison buildings are in need of modernization in part because the expenditure that could have been spent on their improvement has gone to issues for which they were not originally built, such as mental health, addiction and homelessness, said Stephen Gorden, chairman of Cumberland County Commissioners and president of the Maine County Commissioners Association.
Some of the money for the US bailout has already been allocated to county jails, according to a survey distributed to county officials by the Bangor Daily News. For example, Androscoggin, Kennebec, and York counties all spent federal funds on body scanners in prison. Other prison funding has been earmarked for improvements that could help mitigate the effects of the pandemic on prison populations, such as medical equipment and HVAC systems to improve air circulation.
Somerset County wants to use some of its $ 5 million in US rescue funds to pay off the nearly $ 10 million remaining on his jail bond, but the county is awaiting a word from the US Treasury to see if that would be allowed under federal rules, said administrator Dawn DiBlasi.
Nonprofits, social services and other civic leaders are urging county officials to take a broader look to ensure money goes as far as possible, with social service actors saying the money should be spent on chronic problems like homelessness and drug addiction.
“We just don’t want to build more prisons or courthouses,” said Megan Hannan, executive director of the Maine Community Action Partnership.
Maine Budget Commissioner Kirsten Figueroa on Tuesday told a legislative committee that the state had provided $ 59.5 million in US bailout funds to municipalities in Maine since late August. The federal government has also allocated a combined additional $ 118 million to Bangor, Portland, Auburn, Lewiston and Biddeford.
Many county officials have said they will also pursue partnerships to leverage funds for maximum impact, including with towns and villages that have also received federal funding. The ideal projects would combine county, municipal and state funds, Gorden said.
“It would be a win, a win, a win,” he said.