Editor’s note: Park officials said Saturday that Acadia plans to stay open through Sunday, Oct. 1 if the federal government shuts down.
The Bangor City Council finally seems to be nearing decisions about how to spend more than $16 million in COVID-19 relief money it has so far failed to deploy. That money has sat unspent amid mounting homelessness in the region, record opioid deaths statewide and a housing crisis that has created local challenges just as it has elsewhere.
We’ve repeatedly expressed our frustration about the pace at which the city has — and in large part, has not — spent the more than $20 million it received in total federal rescue funds through the American Rescue Plan Act. The city received $20.8 million and has about $16.6 million left. Penobscot County received nearly $30 million in ARPA funds and has around $9 million left undedicated, according to County Administrator Scott Adkins.
There is no way to rewind the clock, but the City Council can proceed both quickly and diligently to make needed final decisions about the money this summer.
Encouragingly, they look well-positioned to do that. The Heart of Maine United Way (previously the United Way of Eastern Maine) oversaw a community volunteer process in which ARPA grant applications were reviewed and funding recommendations were made. Applicants received scores based on various components of their proposals and the projects were ranked accordingly.
At a June 26 council workshop, councilors rightly discussed moving forward quickly and using this review to guide — but not dictate — its remaining ARPA work. They will start with the 25 top-scoring projects, but some of those projects might not receive full funding or any funding at all, and councilors will also be able to suggest other projects that did not score in the top 25.
“I appreciate the benchmark and the line of, let’s start here, this is what the community has said is valuable, this is what has been shown to be financially viable,” Councilor Gretchen Schaefer said during the workshop.
As Schaefer and other councilors discussed, they can start there while also considering other applications as well. Councilor Dan Tremble called it “a good starting point” and “a quicker process too in getting money out.”
“I don’t want our council to have to go through and do this whole thing, and undo everything United Way did, and try to recreate what they did,” Schaefer added.
We don’t want that either. That would unnecessarily slow things down.
The council will proceed with weekly reviews of the applications, with each week’s discussion focusing on specific areas of emphasis previously identified by the council. This week’s review will cover housing and substance use disorder.
“During these reviews, councilors may feel adequate information is available to make funding recommendations or there may be a need to obtain additional clarification,” City Manager Debbie Laurie told us in a June 28 email. “I would anticipate the council will be able to complete the review of applications in July.”
We’ll take that one step further than anticipation. We expect the council to complete the review of applications in July, and to get most if not all of the remaining ARPA money out the door this summer. We’ll say it once again: Put the rescue funds to the rescue.
If there is broad agreement on some of the projects but other proposals require continued discussion, then the council should first fund the widely agreed upon projects and not let remaining debate hold everything else up.
Consider one of the top scoring applications under the United Way review — a winter warming center project from the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter. The sad truth is that winter will be here again before we know it. These organizations need this funding as soon as possible in order to maximize its impact.