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Tuesday night’s Bangor City Council workshop featured plenty of discussion and ideas about spending federal COVID-19 relief money. But strikingly, something else appeared to be in short supply: urgency.
People in the Bangor region are facing far too many pressing issues right now for so much of this large amount of money to remain unspent.
We’re all for deliberation, transparency and smartly targeted investment, and called for that earlier in this process. The current situation, however, looks more like analysis paralysis than careful consideration.
So we’ll say it again. The rescue funds must be fully sent to the rescue.
Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act (APRA) nearly two years ago in March of 2021. The City of Bangor and Penobscot County received over $20 million and over $29 million respectively as a result of that law, with the first installment in May 2021 and then a second roughly a year later. The final rules for the program have been available for over a year. And yet, far too much of this unprecedented funding remains unused.
Based on a document from Tuesday night’s meeting, the city has spent or allocated around $4 million so far toward various projects and groups working in the community. It also has tentatively (and encouragingly) set aside $4.1 million for housing, with several proposals in the works, but has yet to commit that funding to any particular projects or actions. That means it has roughly $16 million still left unallocated or unspent.
Penobscot County also still has more than half of its ARPA funds remaining. According to an email from Penobscot County Administrator Scott Adkins, the county government has about $17.2 million left. The county already has an application process in place and has awarded various grants to community organizations through that specific process. The city and county have smartly partnered or are planning to partner on several projects in areas of clear need, like affordable housing efforts from Penquis.
Yes, ARPA funds can be spent over several years. They must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026. But those once far-off deadlines get closer and closer. And more importantly, many people need help now.
A significant disconnect remains between the acute community needs and the amount of available funds still on the sidelines. This past year saw yet another record number of overdose deaths statewide, with Penobscot County bearing a disproportionate impact of the opioid epidemic. The Bangor area has not been spared from Maine’s housing crisis, and the city’s homelessness response has been strained to the point of needing guidance from a special team from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Yes, the city and county have taken some action and spent some ARPA funds in these areas. But more must be done, and quickly.
Some of Tuesday night’s council discussion centered around guidance to draft an application for community organizations to apply for ARPA funds from the city. That draft isn’t expected to be ready for another three to four weeks. The city was right to hear from residents about their priorities for spending this money, but that happened this past summer. The fact that an application is still being drafted is disappointing.
The only comments we heard Tuesday night that directly and adequately captured the need for quicker action came from Councilor Cara Pelletier.
“My personal stance is that the city of Bangor has waited long enough to be able to participate in this process, and convening additional groups of experts to help us once applications [are] in makes a lot of sense to me,” Pelletier said. “But I think we need to get a process out the door, because we have a lot of organizations that are looking to do good work and a lot of people who are waiting for that work to happen.”
One other councilor, Gretchen Schaefer, voiced agreement. This is the perspective that must win out with the entire council and throughout city hall. The same sense of urgency should apply to Penobscot County government, and the millions of ARPA funds it has remaining as well.
As ever, it is easier to advocate for action from the sidelines than to actually do the work. We don’t pretend otherwise, just as we don’t pretend there is one simple solution to overlapping challenges like housing affordability and availability, homelessness, mental health, and substance use. But we do know for certain that waiting for a single or perfect solution to come along is a recipe for inaction.