Mile High Youth Corps member John Knudsen prepares to set fire to a pile of tree debris alongside U.S. Forest Service firefighters near the Bridge Crossing picnic grounds in Hatch Gulch Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, near Deckers, Colo. In Colorado, climate change means snow is not always on the ground when needed so that crews can safely burn off debris piles and vegetation to help keep future wildfires from becoming catastrophic.. Credit: David Zalubowski / AP

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Morgan Rielly of Westbrook represents District 127 in the Maine House of Representatives. He is the sponsor of the Maine Climate Corps and Maine Service Fellows programs.

During the 130th Legislature, my colleagues and I passed legislation to create the Maine Service Fellows (MSF) and Maine Climate Corps (MCC) volunteer service programs. MSF is a state corps focused on serving rural and underserved communities by addressing housing, public health, climate, and workforce development. MCC will play a crucial role in helping us meet our climate mitigation goals by assisting communities in climate resiliency efforts, from focusing on energy and education to transportation and community resilience.

These programs are the most cost-effective way for our state to address our most pressing challenges, especially in our rural communities.

While we were able to secure some funding for both programs last legislative session, we need to fully fund these programs going forward. Service year programming has a strong return on investment and is an efficient way to get funds into communities that need it the most. The MCC and MSF programs, according to Volunteer Maine, are expected to see a strong return on investment. These investments stay within the communities hosting service members, which helps build local infrastructure that ensures the project is self-sustaining after service members leave. Further, these programs will help our state with workforce development while attracting and retaining younger Mainers in our communities.

We only appropriated an inadequate $81,310 for MCC and failed to include any funding for MSF in the continuing services budget the Legislature recently passed. Going forward, we need to increase funding for MCC and actually fund the MSF program.

This session, I’ve sponsored two bills, LD 142 and LD 143, that call for $1,840,000 and $570,00 in funding for the MCC and MSF, respectively, in the 2023 and 2024 fiscal years. These numbers were determined after consulting with Volunteer Maine and its commissioners. Other states like Colorado have allocated millions in funding for their proposed Climate Corps programs.

Here in Maine, 79 communities currently qualify for MSF, and 20 communities have already expressed interest in hosting one. Millinocket will soon host a fellow to provide assistance with community decisions and plans related to economic development. Pleasant Point (Sipayik) has requested a fellow to coordinate a community home weatherizing project. These fellows will be starting their service in late spring.

Sadly, because of a lack of funding, we weren’t able to help all those who requested a fellow. Most notably, a coalition of 10 Washington County ambulance associations requested a fellow to help lead a revitalization of EMS volunteers. Only two of the 10 ambulance associations currently have the capacity to respond to emergency calls on a 24/7 basis, and not having a service fellow will impact their ability to save lives.

We cannot operate an effective MCC program with the $81,310, and MCC grants cannot have a significant impact if funds only support five members for seven months. In distributing its first round of funding, the commission awarded the pilot funds to Downeast Partners, the Community Action Program of Washington and Hancock Counties. Due to the limited funding from the last session, the Commission focused the Corps on one priority, energy conservation,

due to the ongoing energy crisis here in our state. However, we need a fully funded MCC to address all of the areas as outlined in the MCC report. The $81,310 would essentially defund the Corps, making it harder for communities and organizations across the state to meet our collective climate mitigation and resiliency goals.

Not funding our service programming could have serious consequences for our communities, especially our rural ones. If you would like to see a fully-funded MCC and investments into MSF to support rural service programming, then reach out to your local state representative and senator to urge them to support full funding for Maine’s service programs. This is our opportunity to invest in our communities and in those who want to serve our state.