Despite a proposal from one city councilor, Ellsworth won’t be using federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to send checks to every local resident.
Councilor Steven O’Halloran proposed that the city use its ARPA funding, anticipated to be around $860,000, to send checks to every household in Ellsworth.
“I believe it would be honorable to return this windfall to people who have supported the city [financially],” O’Halloran said Monday at a council’s meeting.
He repeatedly referred to Ellsworth residents as “stockholders” who deserved to directly benefit from the federal pandemic related funding.
“Essentially, it’s surprise money,” O’Halloran said. “Everybody had their lives changed by the pandemic. Let’s find a way to give back to every stockholder in Ellsworth.”
Other members of the council told O’Halloran that the federal act that is providing the funds specifically prohibits it from being used to directly reduce taxes, and that the payments to residents would essentially function as tax refunds.
“It all sounds warm and fuzzy, Steve, but we’re not allowed to do it,” fellow councilor Marc Blanchette said.
More than a dozen states have successfully challenged the prohibition in the federal legislation, but Maine is not one of them, other councilors pointed out.
ARPA funding can be used to replace lost revenues for governments, to fund efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19, to help households and businesses hurt by the pandemic, and for specific infrastructure projects such as water, sewer, or broadband improvements, among other things.
Other members of the council said that by spending ARPA funds on eligible programs, city residents will benefit and could see a lower impact on their property tax bills in the coming years than they might otherwise because of the availability of the federal funding.
Spending the money on projects that would have long-term impacts such as infrastructure improvements “might help taxpayers more than cutting a one-time check,” councilor Robert Miller said.
The city has until the end of 2024 to find ways to use the funds and has to spend the money by the end of 2026, city officials said.
O’Halloran’s suggestion died due to lack of support, without the council voting on the idea.
Instead, the council agreed to a suggestion from City Manager Glenn Moshier that they schedule a public workshop, likely sometime next month, to identify and consider worthwhile programs or projects that could be funded with the federal relief money.
O’Halloran also proposed giving $1,000 to every city employee who worked through the pandemic. Ellsworth’s first responders already received council approval for such payments in November. Other councilors opposed that measure as well, saying that other city employees were given the option of working from home or did not have to interact closely with each other or the public.
Still, department heads can approach Moshier to request pandemic hazard pay for their workers, and any such requests can be considered by the council at a future meeting, city officials said.
“There has been some interest [from department heads],” Moshier said. “The reality is there still is a danger and risk for all our employees.”