PITTSFIELD, Maine — Pittsfield will dedicate $27,500 toward bonuses for town employees who worked through the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday, councilors voted 4-2 to approve the bonus pay for 35 employees.
Municipalities across Somerset County and statewide are weighing how to use American Rescue Plan Act funds, as the federal government has limitations on how they can be spent. Many are choosing to reward their employees for sticking with their jobs during the pandemic.
Of the $421,830 the town received under the program, $23,000 will be used for the bonuses. The remaining $4,500 will come from unexpended 2021 budget funds, Town Manager Kathryn Ruth said Wednesday.
Several key leaders in town — town manager, police chief, fire chief and EMA director and transfer station coordinator — will receive $1,500, according to the resolution. Full-time department heads and staff would get $1,000. Part-time department heads and staff, including firefighters, would get $500.
The resolution was crafted based on suggestions and feedback from town councilors, Ruth said during the meeting.
To receive the bonus pay, town employees had to be employed in March 2020 and had to have worked throughout the pandemic assisting people and performing regular duties. Pittsfield Fire Department employees must have answered fire calls in accordance with the fire chief’s requirements. Employees who were on leave during the pandemic are not eligible for the bonus, the resolution said.
Councilors Michael Cianchette and Jason Hall opposed the resolution, saying that the federal funds could be used on infrastructure and other projects.
“The state of Maine gave $285 to people who were working through the pandemic,” Hall said, suggesting the funds be spent on improving infrastructure. “I don’t know why the town of Pittsfield feels the need to spend … just for the heck of it.”
Cianchette agreed, saying he has a hard time justifying the bonuses to his constituents.
“This is on the taxpayers’ backs,” he said. “I didn’t agree with the federal government doing it. I didn’t agree with the state doing it. And I certainly don’t agree with the town doing it.”
Mayor Heather Donahue advocated for the reward to employees, because public-facing town workers dealt with complaints from residents throughout the pandemic, which put them at risk. This is a small way for the town to show its appreciation for their efforts, she said.
Councilors discussed using different ratios of federal funds and the unexpended account for the bonuses. They also weighed varying amounts, such as lowering key leaders’ bonus from $1,500 to $1,000.
“I understand what Jason is saying, but every single time we try to use this ARPA money, we get told we can’t use it. … I see no reason why we shouldn’t recognize the employees that actually stayed with us all the way from March of 2020 and didn’t leave to go to other jobs,” Councilor Amanda Collamore said.
The councilor was upset that the town couldn’t get $180,000 approved for bulletproof vests, she said. Collamore considers the vests appropriate personal protective equipment for police officers.
Collamore, who also represents District 106 in the Maine House of Representatives, said she also strongly advocated to increase the $285 relief checks that Mainers received or will receive from the state.
The town could use the federal funds on infrastructure related to water and sewer or broadband. Other options include premium pay for employees and public health care, such as providing COVID-19 testing and other services, a difficult category for the town to work with, Ruth said.
Councilor Brent Frost suggested a straw poll, in which four councilors voted in favor of the resolution. A motion by Cianchette to table the resolution failed.
The resolution was one item on the Town Council’s agenda for the last meeting of the year, which lasted nearly five hours.
Aside from the bonus pay, “the town has targeted the ARPA funds for infrastructure and to date has focused on water infrastructure,” Ruth said Wednesday.