Penobscot County Jail. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Penobscot County has scheduled a series of in-person and remote meetings to gather community input on how to spend $29.5 million in federal funds headed its way under the American Rescue Plan Act that Congress passed in March.

The county is deciding how to spend a sum of federal funds that exceed its annual budget. County commissioners have said they’re looking into whether they can use a portion of those funds to pay for a 100-bed expansion of the county’s chronically overcrowded jail. Meanwhile, advocates have called on the county to spend some of the funding on expanding services to fight addiction, homelessness and mental health problems.

In addition to setting up meetings throughout Penobscot County and over Zoom, the county has set up a website that explains how the money can and cannot be used according to federal rules. The county is also accepting questions and comments through the website.

The federal money may be used to help communities recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and to be in a better position to respond to the next health crisis.

County commissioners expect to determine an exact process for organizations to apply for one-time grants after holding the community input sessions. A professional facilitator has been hired to run the meetings.

Commissioners earlier this year hired Lisette Carrithers as the grant manager.

Under federal rules, the funds may be used for a public health response; to replace revenue losses from the pandemic; to address the pandemic’s negative economic impacts; to provide essential workers hazard pay; and to upgrade sewer, water and broadband infrastructure.

Governments can’t use the money to make pension plan payments, increase “rainy day” funds, pay down debt service or pay legal settlements.

The county still hasn’t determined whether it can use any of the money to partially fund a 100-bed addition to the chronically overcrowded Penobscot County Jail.

The in-person listening sessions are scheduled for 7 p.m. Jan. 5 at Bangor City Hall, 3 p.m. Jan. 11 at the Newport Public Safety Building, 6 p.m. Jan. 19 at East Millinocket Town Hall and 2 p.m. Jan. 29 at the Brewer Community Center.

The remote sessions will be held over Zoom at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 8 and 6 p.m. Feb. 8.