Bucksport could give vouchers and other aid to those hardest hit by coronavirus as part of a $115,000 proposal from Town Manager Susan Lessard to soften the blow of the pandemic in town over the next two months.
With the money coming from the town’s $5.5 million Undesignated Fund Balance, Lessard proposes to give town residents who have lost jobs due to the pandemic $100 food vouchers for April and shuttered and hard-hit small businesses grants of $500 a month for April and May. The Town Council will consider whether to approve the plan when it meets electronically Thursday.
If councilors approve the aid, Bucksport would stand out as a municipal government offering direct, coronavirus-related aid to its residents. The federal government last week passed a $2 trillion aid package for individuals and businesses, and Maine state government earlier in March expanded unemployment benefits and made low-interest loans available to small businesses.
Lessards’s proposal for the $115,000 aid package is consistent with the town’s long-term planning for disasters, she said.
“The idea of having reserves sufficient to handle things like this has been a cornerstone here, and utilizing this at a time as traumatic as this seems rational,” Lessard said.
As part of the plan, Bucksport would waive a $6 per-meal fee charged to senior citizens who participate in the town’s senior meal program. That aspect of the proposal could run for 10 weeks and cost $10,000 to $15,000, depending on the number of clients.
“There is a great deal of pain associated with this pandemic even for people who have not contracted the virus,” Lessard said. “While state and federal [aid] programs are in process, we are the level of government closest to our own residents and have the ability to react more quickly in ways to provide a bridge for people until these other programs are in place.”
Created decades ago to help the town handle the shuttering of its paper mill — its largest single employer and responsible for about 70 percent of the town’s property valuation — today the Undesignated Fund Balance allows the town to continue operations without having to borrow money and to do capital projects without increasing property taxes, Lessard said.
The town cannot devote the full balance to the pandemic. With operational costs for town government and schools, among other things, running about $860,000 per month, the $5.5 million account is large enough to fund operations for about 6 ½ months. Town leaders like to have enough money on hand to fund three or four months of operating costs, Lessard said.
The $100 vouchers would allow food purchases from the Hannaford and Tozier’s supermarkets in Bucksport “until the unemployment system can catch up with demand,” Lessard wrote in her proposal to town councilors.
The fund balance has enough money to fund food vouchers through April. Lessard has no precise data on the number of families it would help, but has budgeted for 200, she said, totaling $20,000 per month. Tozier’s was selected because it has begun delivering food to Bucksport customers. Qualified residents would be required to submit a layoff notice dated March 1 or later, she wrote.
The $500 payments to businesses would consume about $50,000 of the $115,000 allocation. Town Community and Economic Development Director Richard Rotella estimates that as many as 50 town businesses could use the help. The town would distribute the money with checks written to business owners, Lessard wrote.
“We want our small businesses to be able to make it through this period. While forgivable loans are available … for those who maintain people on their payrolls, during this closed or diminished period they are not making any money and when business improves they will not gain the revenue lost during this period,” Lessard said.
Residents can watch the council meeting on the website Town Hall Streams or on the local cable channel. They can call in questions to the town office at 207-469-7368 or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org, she said.