Maine’s overlooked counties urged to think big after hitting the stimulus jackpot
By Josh Keefe, Bangor Daily News Staff
Penobscot County, Maine, and Stafford County, Virginia, are home to slightly more than 151,000 people. Because they have roughly the same population, each is scheduled to receive $29 million in federal aid as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
But the size of the governments are radically different: Penobscot spent roughly $23 million in 2021, while the county in the Washington, D.C., suburbs spent $320 million, about 14 times more, illustrating the windfall for county governments that are weak by design in Maine.
Flush with $260 million over two years, Maine’s often-overlooked counties must now choose whether to spend it on capital projects and traditional services like overseeing the jail and sheriff’s department or expand on their limited civic roles in order to fund regional projects which have typically been managed by Maine’s state and municipal governments.
Advocates are pushing counties to think bigger as they begin to allocate the money. County officials are both planning broader regional partnerships and looking to spend on core functions, but all emphasize the need to invest carefully as this opportunity is unlikely to come again.
“The formula was very beneficial to Penobscot County,” Penobscot County Commissioner Peter Baldacci said. “But we don’t want to rush out with plans without them being well thought out. We don’t expect something like this in the near future. “
County officials are wary of launching programs or services with one-time money that will require tax revenue to continue operating. They must also operate within federal rules written for larger counties with far more staff that generally provide more services, such as core public health, infrastructure or recreational functions. That limits how Maine counties can spend.
To date, Maine counties have spent little money, with much of what has been spent going toward premium pay for employees. They have only gotten half of their total allocations with the rest coming next year. The U.S. Treasury has also not finalized rules on which projects are eligible, although it has outlined public health, addressing negative economic effects of the pandemic, business aid and water, sewer and broadband infrastructure as allowable expenses.
For administrators like Aroostook County’s Ryan Pelletier, making sure the money goes as far as possible is a primary goal. He hopes to leverage the $13 million his county is scheduled to receive in order to generate $26 million in investment, he said.
As part of that effort, the county got roughly 40 of its municipalities to agree to chip in 2 percent of their stimulus funds to fund a county position solely dedicated to administering American Rescue Plan funds over the coming years. Several other counties, including Penobscot, York, Cumberland, Oxford and Piscataquis, have either hired staff or contracted outside consultants to help administer American Rescue Plan funds.
Aroostook County is one of many counties also developing a process that would allow community organizations to apply for grants from the funding. Many counties are also setting up portals and community meetings to elicit ideas and feedback from community members.
That process was required in part because of county government’s smaller role in Maine and the rest of New England, Pelletier said. For example, Rhode Island and Connecticut do not have county governments, so money earmarked for counties in those states is going to municipalities.
“I think this thing was designed at the national level without really a lot of thought given to the fact that county governments in each state operate differently,” Pelletier said.
Capital improvement projects, like fixes to jails or other county buildings, are attractive to budget-mindful officials because they are one-time expenses. The federal funding potentially provides counties the ability to take on projects they would typically have to borrow to afford.
Many jail buildings are in need of upgrades in part because spending that might have gone to improving them have gone toward issues they were not originally built to address, like mental health, addiction and homelessness, said Stephen Gorden, chair of the Cumberland County commissioners and president of the Maine County Commissioners Association.
Some of the American Rescue Plan money has already been allocated for county jails, according to a survey distributed to county officials by the Bangor Daily News. For example, Androscoggin, Kennebec and York counties have all spent federal funds on jail body scanners. Other jail funding has been earmarked for improvements that could help mitigate the pandemic’s effects on jail populations, like medical equipment and HVAC systems to improve airflow.
Somerset County wants to use some of its $5 million in American Rescue Funds to pay down the nearly $10 million left on its jail bond, but the county is awaiting word from the U.S. Treasury to see if that would be allowed under federal rules, said administrator Dawn DiBlasi.
Nonprofit, social service and other civic leaders are encouraging county officials to embrace bigger thinking to ensure the money goes as far as possible, with those in the social-services arena saying money should be spent on chronic problems like homelessness and addiction.
“We just don’t want to build more jails or courthouses,” said Megan Hannan, executive director of the Maine Community Action Partnership.
On Tuesday, Maine budget commissioner Kirsten Figueroa told a legislative committee the state had disbursed $59.5 million in American Rescue Plans funds to Maine municipalities since the end of August. The federal government has also earmarked another $118 million combined in funds for Bangor, Portland, Auburn, Lewiston and Biddeford.
Many county officials said they would also pursue partnerships as a way to leverage the funds for maximum impact, including with cities and towns that have also received federal funding. The ideal projects would combine county, municipal and state funds, Gorden said.
“That would be a win, win, win,” he said.