Main Street Orono. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Maine communities are mostly still unsure what they’ll do with an influx of tens of millions of federal dollars from the latest congressional COVID-19 relief package. But leaders from about three dozen communities across the state have teamed up to coordinate their spending so they can use their individual awards to make larger, more enduring investments.

The effort is still in its infancy. The leaders still haven’t identified specific projects to fund, much less how they can multiply the impact of their investments by collaborating. But they’ve started meeting to sketch out plans with a focus on making the most of a large federal investment that they don’t expect to see again anytime soon. They also know that Maine towns and cities have generally prioritized broadband access and affordable housing.

“It’s unprecedented. There has never been this amount of investment from the federal government directly to municipal governments,” said Kate Dufour, director of state and federal relations for the Maine Municipal Association, which is working with the local leaders. “We’ve never seen this before.” 

The funding amounts dwarf what local governments in Maine have seen before from the federal government. Maine’s nearly 500 towns and cities are slated to receive nearly $241 million total, according to the National League of Cities. Some $370 million is headed to local school districts, and Maine’s 16 county governments are slated to receive $260 million. For a number of Maine counties, their American Rescue Plan windfalls are larger than their annual operating budgets.

“I’m not going to fib. I could spend Orono’s million dollars very quickly on allowable projects that we have already prioritized,” said Orono Town Manager Sophie Wilson, who’s working with the statewide group. “A group of us across the state are pushing this idea of, instead of us going into our silos and spending the money very effectively for our one community, why can’t we be looking at finding pathways that leverage local, county and state money?”

Kennebunkport Town Manager Laurie Smith has spearheaded the effort because of both the opportunity and challenge associated with the American Rescue Plan funds. The requirements around spending the money, Smith said, are both “vague and specific.” In addition, the funding amounts are, to some extent, a mismatch for Maine local governments.

Maine counties are slated to receive large amounts of money based on the idea that counties are the default governing bodies across the country, Smith said. In Maine, however, county government operations are generally limited to sheriffs’ offices, jails, registries of deeds, probate courts and a few other functions. They also serve as the municipal governments for the sparsely populated unorganized territories.

That’s why the group of municipal leaders are considering county money as a piece of the puzzle.

“In Maine municipal services are very different, which led us to a conversation of, how are the counties going to use these funds and how do we engage with the counties and think more on a regional basis about our issues?” Smith said. “These are kind of once-in-a-lifetime federal dollars.” 

The conversation so far is based on data from a Maine Municipal Association survey of local leaders that identified broadband access and affordable housing as the top two priorities. 

While improving broadband speeds and access has been a focus for years, the pandemic further highlighted Maine’s broadband-related shortcomings and the economic imperative of fast and widely available internet, Dufour said.

Already, Waldo County has laid out preliminary plans for spending part of its share of American Rescue Plan funding. Broadband advocates in the county were disappointed that county commissioners so far had devoted only $20,000 per town to broadband infrastructure, but without a strict requirement that the towns spend the money on broadband efforts.

In terms of housing, municipal leaders identified a need specifically for more affordable housing, senior housing and workforce housing, Dufour said.

“The pandemic illustrated a need for affordable housing and a need for broadband, and now we have pandemic-related money to fix those issues,” she said. 

As municipal leaders start to form their plans, they also have an eye on strengthening their relationships with county governments so they can work together on spending the American Rescue Plan funds, Dufour said.

One example of that is in Aroostook County, where county commissioners have approved plans to hire someone to manage their $13 million federal award. That manager will also help individual towns with their spending and ensure they comply with federal requirements tied to the funds.

“There’s a real opportunity to build coalitions and to say, ‘here’s one municipal dollar, here’s one county dollar and maybe here’s a state dollar,’” Dufour said. “So you have $3 to invest instead of one. So from my perspective, it’s a remarkable and wonderful opportunity to collaborate.” 

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...