In March, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act into law, which allocated $494 million in pandemic-related aid to Maine’s local governments.
Across Maine, counties, cities and towns are beginning to spend the funds — which represent the largest amount given to local governments in U.S. history — on a wide variety of projects.
The Bangor Daily News is launching an effort to track how counties and municipalities spend this unprecedented windfall to help provide Mainers with a transparent look at their communities’ priorities and highlight how the funds shape their day-to-day lives.
But there are nearly 500 municipalities in Maine. To track the money, we need your help.
What are the funds and how are they being given out in Maine?
The plan has allocated different totals for Maine counties, some of its largest cities, and its towns and municipalities. The first half of the total was delivered in May this year, with the second half scheduled to go out in the spring.
The American Rescue Plan earmarked $260 million for Maine counties. The plan also gives $128 million to six of the state’s largest cities: Auburn, Bangor, Biddeford, Lewiston, Portland and South Portland.
Finally, the federal government identified $115 million for all other Maine municipalities. That money is disbursed by the state, and the extra step resulted in municipalities waiting longer for their money than counties and the cities listed above.
Last week, the state announced it had sent $59.4 million, or almost all of the first half of the funding it received from the federal government, to 477 municipalities.
What can local governments spend the money on?
The U.S. Treasury has not yet finalized its rules for how local governments can spend the money, but an interim final rule lays out several categories of acceptable expenditures.
Broadly speaking, there are five categories of acceptable expenditures:
— supporting public health
— addressing the negative economic impacts caused by the pandemic
— replacing lost public sector revenue
— providing premium pay for workers
— investing in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure
Although the final rules are not yet in place, many officials anticipate they will be less restrictive than the current interim rules. There have also been efforts in Congress to give governments more leeway in how they spend the money.
Local governments are required to make periodic reports on how they are spending the money. If they spend it in ways that run afoul of the rules, they must pay it back.
All money must be allocated by Dec. 31, 2024 and spent by Dec. 31, 2026.
How have local governments spent the money so far?
Different governments are moving at varying speeds to allocate the money, since they must strike a balance between getting the funds out the door to help people in need and taking a deliberative approach to an unprecedented injection of cash.
For example, York County has already allocated $8 million of the $40 million it is scheduled to receive, while also taking early steps toward more multi-million dollar projects, including a recovery and detox facility and a workforce development center for public safety employees. Meanwhile, adjacent Oxford County has not spent any of its funding yet.
Many county and city governments are still evaluating proposals but some themes have emerged across the state, including premium pay for employees who have worked during the pandemic and HVAC upgrades to county facilities to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Many local governments are seeking input from residents. Some, like Penobscot County, are holding workshops and listening sessions in the coming weeks and months.
Here’s where you come in
Maine’s 16 counties and the six bigger cities have received large payments from the federal government and we have begun to track how they are spending the money. That’s a manageable number of governments for us to monitor. But there are many more cities and towns where we need your help to track in real time.
If everyone from concerned residents to officials can keep us updated about how money is being spent in their communities, then we can help to make sure a once-in-a-lifetime windfall for Maine communities is used in a transparent way.
Our goal is to create easy-to-understand visuals and databases that break down how money is being used, while highlighting the largest and most ambitious projects and themes.
Fill out the form below to help.
Correction: South Portland is among the six Maine cities that received a larger share of American Rescue Plan Act money directly from the federal government. An earlier version of this story did not add it to that group.