Maine’s largest counties and cities are moving to implement a windfall of federal COVID-19 aid at different paces, revealing tension faced by administrators and elected officials between getting the money out and making calculated long-term investments.
A relatively small portion of the aid has been allocated nearly a year after President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act into law. The funds aren’t required to be committed to projects until the end of 2024, and not required to be spent until the end of 2026. Maine counties and its five largest cities have only received half of the combined $378 million of federal money they are due with the second and final tranche of money expected later this year.
Those cities — Portland, Lewiston, Bangor, South Portland and Auburn — have allocated 40 percent of their first disbursement compared with less than 20 percent for the eight biggest counties, according to reports filed with the U.S. Treasury at the end of January.
That difference may stem from the traditional roles filled by the different levels of government in Maine. The state has strong city and town governments that provide most of the services that people rely on daily. Counties are weaker, largely managing sheriff’s offices, jail and land transaction records. The ARPA funds are distributed to counties by population, so Maine counties received an outsized portion of money relative to services they provide.
“They are making these decisions all the time,” Neal Goldberg, an analyst for the Maine Municipal Association, said of the bigger cities. “They have priorities and they have planning.”
“I think counties are really being purposeful and deliberate with how they spend the money,” he added.
The filings at the end of January were the most comprehensive look yet at how Maine governments are beginning to allocate the money. The eight smallest counties and virtually all cities and towns do not have to report on how they plan to spend the money until April.
There are wide disparities between how much money both types of jurisdictions have earmarked. Some was due to uncertainty around the federal rules about how money could be spent. While some jurisdictions waited to see the final rules issued in January before making commitments, others decided to operate within more restrictive guidelines.
Cumberland County allocated nearly half its first disbursement to a variety of projects, including the establishment of a public health office, cybersecurity measures, improvements to the Cumberland County Jail and Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, as well as retention pay for workers.
Those plans make up more than two-thirds of all the money allocated by Maine’s eight largest counties. Maine’s most populous county has been able to hit the ground running in part because as the only county here with more than 250,000 residents, it had to file an annual ARPA performance plan with the federal government late last year.
That helped Cumberland County “line up our priorities pretty early,” said county spokesperson Travis Kennedy, who added that the county used some of the funds to hire a full-time compliance officer focused entirely on ARPA.
“Having her on staff has given us the confidence that we’re spending our funds appropriately, and documenting everything right, which can be a challenge with federal funds,” Kennedy said.
Many of the other largest counties in Maine, including Penobscot, Oxford, Kennebec and Aroostook, have allocated less than 10 percent of their federal money to specific projects, and almost all of that has been tagged for premium pay for essential employees.
Bangor has not taken steps to use any of the $5 million it received, opting to wait for the rules to be finalized, said Debbie Laurie, Bangor interim city manager, who added the city council is planning on developing project plans in the coming year.
Meanwhile, Portland has earmarked $14 million of the $24 million it has received. Projects that are scheduled to receive a million dollars or more in funding include a new homeless shelter, a community pool replacement, a housing program expansion and the expansion of child care in the city.
Many larger jurisdictions have distributed surveys or held listening sessions to gather input on how residents want funds spent. Others are administering processes to evaluate projects proposed by community organizations. However, many public officials have said the value of the requests they have received is greater than the money available.
Some allocated funds only represent initial plans and evaluations for projects with much larger price tags. York County has spent more than $800,000 on the engineering and design of projects. But some of those projects could represent multi-million dollar construction projects if they move forward, including a potential regional training center for fire, police and emergency services personnel that could be used by municipal departments in the county.
But while much of the money remains unallocated, much of what has been allocated has gone toward building improvements and premium pay. Some advocates and experts hope that will change as more money is dedicated to projects and services.
Penobscot County Cares, a coalition of 35 social service organizations, formed in order to pressure commissioners to spend the federal funding to address the opioid epidemic, homelessness, and lack of affordable housing. The county is considering whether to spend funds on fixing its overcrowded 160-year-old jail.
While the funds represent opportunities for long-term investments, they should be spent to help those who have been hurt most by the pandemic and “address equity and disparities,” said Maura Pillsbury of the liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy. But administering the funding requires balancing many priorities, argued South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli.
“I think there’s a broad spectrum of things that we could do, and it’s probably best to dabble a little bit in all of them,” Morelli said.