This story is part of an ongoing series that examines how Maine and its communities have used the once-in-a-generation windfall from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Stories will be published around the two-year anniversary of President Joe Biden signing the legislation into law.
Behind Sean Faircloth’s desk is a homemade card from his child that reads, “Best dad ever.” Next to it is a small map of Bangor with a little blue dot for each spot someone has overdosed.
Faircloth runs Together Place, a group on Union Street that focuses on three of Bangor’s biggest challenges: addiction, mental health and housing. It provides counseling and addiction recovery resources funded by donations and grants.
But the organization and others that provide social services have no way to access the millions of federal relief dollars that Bangor city government has sat on since they were disbursed almost two years ago.
“Let’s be blunt about it,” he said. “We’re talking about two winters.”
Two years ago, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act into law to combat the public health and economic hardships caused by the pandemic. Roughly $500 million was sent to Maine counties and municipalities. Maine’s biggest communities have lagged others in making firm plans to spend their aid, according to a Bangor Daily News analysis.
Bangor has been the slowest of all, having obligated so far only $3.7 million of its nearly $20.5 million to date. It still does not officially have a process in place to accept applications for funding, nor has it determined what qualifications the city will use to decide funding levels.
The slow process has also frustrated many organizations that play critical roles in addressing some of the city’s most pressing issues. The city’s slow movement on disbursing the funds has also been a point of division between leaders who are still debating their best use.
Some councilors continue to push to invest these one-time federal funds in projects that will have future returns, while others have pushed to use them more quickly to address homelessness, drug, mental health and other crises facing the city.
Councilor Clare Davitt expressed her frustration with the city’s inaction in an October email to the rest of the council and Bangor City Manager Debbie Laurie, saying the process had been postponed repeatedly and citing concern the issue “has gotten lost when it should have been at the very top of the list.”
“Addressing the ARPA funding is one of the number one ways we can address the issues of housing, homelessness, and substance use disorder that we are consistently focused on,” Davitt wrote.
Laurie said in a reply to Davitt that the city was waiting for the county to finish its process to “not duplicate efforts, thereby leveraging this historic funding opportunity.”
Earlier this year, the city distributed $3.7 million of its pot to five local organizations, including the Bangor YMCA and Bangor Public Library. The funding was not approved until late last year, and the awards combined both the city’s and the county’s federal relief funds. The city also has earmarked another $4.1 million to ease the city’s housing shortage and homelessness crisis, but that money has not been allocated to any specific entities or initiatives.
Although the city has not had a formal process for groups to request funding, some organizations have requested money anyway, including Together Place. Faircloth made a pitch to the city last spring but has yet to see any promise of funding, he said.
“It is time to, I’d suggest, make the investment,” he said.
Last November, Laurie told the BDN that the city was planning to move deliberately. It had not spent any money as of September but has since laid out a rough budget. But Bangor didn’t have to look far for an example of a process to solicit ideas for spending priorities and to create an application and selection process.
Penobscot County received about $10 million more than the city did. In January 2022, just before final rules were released about how municipalities could spend their federal relief dollars, it held a listening session that helped dictate the county’s spending priorities. By August 2022, commissioners had selected the first round of projects to support through grants.
Meanwhile, it took until late spring and early summer for Bangor officials to formally solicit input on how to spend its federal dollars. It wasn’t until January 2023 that the city announced its spending priorities, with no way for organizations to request access to that funding.
“We have not executed the ARPA process as well as we could have, and much of that falls on the council and our chair for not providing more leadership,” Davitt told the BDN.
The chair, Rick Fournier, wishes things moved faster but said that efforts to push the process along hit roadblocks. He pointed to staff changes, a lengthy process of soliciting feedback from residents and a desire from the county to agree on first projects.
While Fournier understands the desire to move quickly, he feels the city needs to be “prudent” with these one-time federal funds.
“I’m a former banker. I want to make sure all my T’s are dotted and I’s are crossed,” he said. “I’m not willy-nilly just going to give out money.”
Cara Pelletier, a first-term city councilor, campaigned last year on moving quickly in spending Bangor’s federal dollars. During a workshop last Monday, Pelletier urged the council to move faster now that it has settled on a way for organizations to request funds.
“I just want to express that it would be great if the council could keep their foot on the gas pedal with ARPA,” Pelletier said. “I would like to see us moving much more quickly, especially as we get the application out the door.”
During that same meeting, Councilor Dan Tremble suggested the city use some of its federal recovery funds to pay for renovations to City Hall, something for which voters already approved $6 million in borrowing. Councilors Dina Yacoubagha and Joe Leonard expressed opposition.
“We have a lot of other important projects and organizations that desperately need this money,” Yacoubagha said. “If we don’t address the priorities that we have in our communities, then I feel we are failing our community by spending the money on renovating before we address the priorities we identified.”
In the wake of that discussion, Doug Dunbar and a group he helped organize called Penobscot County Cares, a coalition of local service providers founded in 2021, criticized the council for even suggesting it use the aid for renovations given “acute crises” in the city.
“My thinking almost two years ago was, ‘We’ve got to act on this,’” Dunbar said in an interview. “I didn’t realize that it’d be two years later, and I’d still be saying the same damn things.”