Aroostook County ARPA Administrator Steve Pelletier works from his office at the Caribou Courthouse. Pelletier helped Aroostook administer an ARPA grant program that will award half the county's federal funds to towns and nonprofits, March 9, 2023. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

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.

PERHAM, Maine — One of Aroostook’s most unique plant and wetland habitats would have risked contamination without county leaders setting aside federal COVID-19 relief money to save it from erosion.

The Salmon Brook Bog Ecological Reserve in Perham is on more than 1,000 acres and home to rare plant species, wetlands, upland woods and the 50-acre Salmon Brook Lake. Local officials partnered with the Maine Natural Areas Program to purchase the land from Irving Woodlands in 1993, ensuring it would never be used for logging.

This year, Perham will lay down new pavement on a road near the lake to prevent erosion that has put the lake at risk of contamination from a chemical the town used to prevent dust clouds on the dirt road in summer. The project will help shield the reserve, which contains six rare plant species and other species not found in other parts of Maine.

“It’s a unique environment,” John Rasnussen, a Select Board member, said. “Everyone can enjoy it with the walking and ATV trails that are nearby.”

Town officials do not yet know the total cost for the road upgrades because the project only recently went out to bid. The project has been years in the making, but town officials would not have had enough funds to take it on in 2023 were it not for Aroostook’s approach to spending the county’s American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Aroostook was one of a few Maine counties that came up with a regionalized approach that is getting more money to its smallest towns. While several other Maine counties established competitive grant programs, those who did, including Cumberland and York, are more urban. Officials wanted to ensure their smallest communities, with fewer financial and community resources, got equal access to funds to launch local projects.

The County got $13 million in total ARPA funds in 2021 and 2022. Commissioners decided to set aside half, $6.5 million, for a grant program sending money to municipality and nonprofit projects. The cost of administration was covered by 41 towns contributing 2 percent of their allocations.

Small towns in Aroostook struggle to fund bigger projects and municipal leaders often turn to organizations such as Northern Maine Development Commission or county government to help navigate complex grant guidelines. That culture of collaboration made local leaders from governments to nonprofits eager to apply for Aroostook’s grants after the program launched.

“Most town managers and nonprofit leaders were already familiar with the people involved, so they felt at ease with the grant program we put forth,” Steve Pelletier, the county’s ARPA administrator, said. “There really weren’t any challenges with getting municipalities on board.”

Pelletier was hired in September 2021 and created a process that allows municipalities and nonprofits to submit project letters of intent and applications that include estimated costs and how the projects would benefit public health or improve infrastructure. Once towns submit proposals, a panel of county employees scores each application. Those with the highest scores went to county commissioners for final approval.

The program has played out similarly in other counties that also designated funds for cities and towns and hired administrators, including Cumberland, Penobscot and York. Maine counties received $260 million under the 2021 stimulus bill, which added up to a massive windfall because they oversee fewer services than national counterparts.

Cumberland has awarded $24.5 million of its $57 million haul in this manner, including $3 million and $1.7 million for new homeless shelters in Portland and Brunswick, respectively, and $2.6 million for housing projects in South Portland and Standish. Penobscot has designated $10 million of its $29.5 million for community use.

In June 2022, the Aroostook County commissioners awarded an initial round of $2.1 million. Those projects included a town-wide broadband expansion in Easton; wastewater upgrades in Washburn; emergency medical equipment in Caribou, Fort Kent, Mars Hill, Blaine and Bridgewater; and housing assistance and workforce development program expansions for the Aroostook County Action Program.

“We felt that we should try to help projects that would not have happened otherwise,” Pelletier said.

Money from the county came in addition to the millions in ARPA funds that towns had already received. For example, Perham received $38,000 in federal funds itself, then got $73,500 in the county’s round of grants for the wetland project.

Perham officials do not yet have a total projected cost. But having that money is a big deal. With a population of only 371, the Select Board must prioritize which projects it will float to taxpayers every year. If the county funds were not there, Rasnussen said taxes may have gone up 20 percent and the project would be done piecemeal.

Pelletier also helped towns to navigate the complex set of ARPA reporting requirements and know exactly what projects would be eligible under federal rules.

In Eagle Lake, a St. John Valley town of 553 people, officials found their current technology for using Zoom during Select Board meetings — a tablet simply placed in the meeting room — did not allow people to fully view and participate in meetings.

Funds for video and sound equipment did not make the town’s latest budget. But a $3,000 ARPA grant from the county allowed Eagle Lake to get a new TV, camera and microphone for their regular meeting room and a conference area used for larger public hearings.

This year, Aroostook County will award another $2.1 million in grants. Cities and towns have begun submitting letters of intent for eligible projects and will submit proposals this spring. The county’s remaining $2.1 million in grants will be awarded in 2024. Eagle Lake already plans to propose two projects for potential funding.

“Having a go-to person was extremely helpful,” Town Manager John Sutherland said. “Steve dedicated his time to go through the guidelines with us, something we never would have had time for on our own.”