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A coalition of organizations in the Bangor area wants municipal and county governments to use some of the huge amount of federal COVID-19 financial relief to help address homelessness, addiction and provide mental health services in the region. The group has our attention, and local officials should be listening, too.
“With unprecedented sums of federal money available to Penobscot County and its municipalities, including more than $60 million in [American Rescue Plan Act] funds for Penobscot County, the City of Bangor and surrounding municipalities, we urge you to create a public process to discuss community needs and ways to better address them,” the group of more than 30 organizations, which include recovery, housing, mental health and other community groups, wrote to Penobscot County commissioners, city and town councilors and state legislators from the area.
Last year, when we were repeatedly calling on Congress to pass more state and local COVID-19 relief, we expected that money would largely be needed for immediate virus response and to make up for dire government revenue projections at the state and local levels. But dreary forecasts, thankfully and with help from the federal government, have largely not turned into reality. At the state level, revenues continue to smash expectations, with the administration of Gov. Janet Mills reporting a state revenue surplus of over $42 million for the month of August.
While making up for lost revenue is still a big part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds going to county and municipal governments, it’s not the only part. And it never was supposed to be. The program objectives, as laid out by the U.S. Treasury Department, go beyond revenue replacement to also include immediate efforts to contain the spread of the virus, support stabilization for households and businesses, and “address systemic public health and economic challenges that have contributed to the inequal [sic] impact of the pandemic.”
That last one would seem to be exactly what this coalition of more than 30 groups is asking for. For a stark, tragic example of the pandemic’s unequal impacts, look no further than the rise in overdose deaths and the high concentration of those deaths in Penobscot County. Having a conversation about how ARP funds can help address this fits perfectly within the program’s design. That has been crystal clear to us.
What hasn’t been so clear is how the Bangor and Penobscot County governments are deciding to spend the more than $20 million and nearly $30 million they are getting, respectively. So we asked them both.
City officials responded quickly. County officials didn’t respond at all.
“To date the only anticipated/planned uses have been for lost revenues and yes some of that was included in the recently adopted FY 2022 budget,” Bangor interim City Manager Debbie Laurie told the BDN editorial board last Tuesday. She said that approximately $850,000 of the funds have been spent so far. In May, then still in her longtime role as finance director, Laurie provided the City Council with an outline of potential ARP fund usages.
“The City continues to track potential uses,” Laurie said last week. “The challenge at the moment is that the Treasury Department has released interim rules only. Once final rules are released, I would anticipate a much broader and public discussion with the City Council so that a comprehensive plan can be developed.”
It is imperative that this broader and public discussion happen. We hope city officials will follow through on that. But just by saying that they are miles ahead of Penobscot County officials, at least as far as we can tell, given that our questions to the county commission chair and general contact form went unanswered.
As we’ve said before, the approximately $30 million the county is receiving offers a generational opportunity to invest in the region. County officials need to clearly and transparently communicate how they will be making decisions about this funding, and engage the public in the process. And we agree with Kate Dufour of the Maine Municipal Association, who called this “a remarkable and wonderful opportunity” for collaboration between municipal and county governments across the state.
We’re not asking these multiple levels of government to have all the answers right now. But we are asking them to bring local organizations, and the general public, along in the decision-making process in figuring out how to best invest in the region’s people and future.