An Ellsworth Police Department SUV cruiser Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

The Ellsworth City Council voted 5-2 on Monday to give $28,000 to first responders as hazard pay related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the first time Ellsworth has given hazard pay related to the pandemic to any of its workers, something that was a point of contention for some counselors during the vote.

The money — $1,000 each to 10 city firefighters and 18 dispatchers and police officers — will come from approximately $860,000 that the city expects to receive in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding.

The first responders are also expected to receive additional hazard pay from the county. Hancock County, which is receiving $10.6 million in federal ARPA money, has offered to provide matching funds in a two to one ratio.

By getting $1,000 from the city, each first responder employed by Ellsworth will get an additional $2,000 from the county, or $3,000 in total. To qualify, each first responder must get hazard pay from the city or town they work for, and must have worked full-time from March 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021.

The county is also paying $3,750 to each of its first responders, which includes sheriff’s deputies and corrections officers. County employees who are not first responders will receive $1,250 in hazard pay from the county.

Troy Bires, deputy chief for the Ellsworth police department, and Scott Guillerault, the city’s fire chief, told the city council that staffers in their departments faced increased risks of catching COVID-19, especially in the early days of the pandemic, because of their face-to-face interactions with the public.

The city’s firefighters respond as emergency medical technicians to medical calls so they had close interactions with the public without adequate personal protective equipment in the early days of the pandemic, Guillerault said.

“The pandemic was not part of their training. It was not part of any of our training,” Guillerault said, adding that the risk of not wearing PPE was unknown for several months.

“These guys were out working in the street, not knowing exactly if they were protected or not.”

Bires said officers were not given time off in the early stages of the pandemic. When they had a suspected exposure to the disease, they stayed away from their families in alternate housing until they had a negative test result, he said.

Councilor Steve O’Halloran voted against the measure. He said he didn’t think it was fair to not offer pandemic hazard pay to other city employees.

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” O’Halloran told Guillerault and Bires. “With all due respect to your departments, both your department [employees] signed up for a risky job. Other city employees didn’t, but they got a risky job out of this [pandemic].”

Councior Gene Lyons cast the other dissenting vote. He too felt it was unfair to Ellsworth residents who also kept working through the pandemic at personal risk, but who don’t work for the city. Lyons also objected to the amount of money the government has paid out in pandemic relief.

“I’m just getting a headache from listening to this,” Lyons said. “We’re going trillions of dollars in debt and then we’re going to sit here and talk about giving more money away. I just don’t see it.”

In response to the fairness concerns raised by O’Halloran and Lyons, City Manager Glenn Moshier stressed that the police and fire departments were the first to submit hazard pay requests because of the county’s matching program for first responders. He said he has encouraged other department heads to submit requests if they believe their employees also deserve COVID-related hazard pay.

Dale Hamilton, the council chair, said the city will have ample opportunity to find other ways to spend the more than $800,000 it will have left over in ARPA funding after these hazard payments to fire and police department employees.

“Let your voices be heard in terms of how you think the city should utilize that funding,” Hamilton said, directing his comments to the public. “We want to hear from the community. We want to hear suggestions and ideas as we vet this.”

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....