Piscataquis commissioners mull several options for use of ARPA funds

DOVER-FOXCROFT — Piscataquis County Commissioners considered the use of $3.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds during a meeting Tuesday.

The county has received about half of its allotment so far, with the other half to arrive next year.

Counties across Maine are contemplating how to spend ARPA funds to better help their citizens and improve their communities. Commissioners considered using portions of the money for generators in several towns, broadband expansion and radio communications upgrades for the county’s emergency responders.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the group stressed the importance of broadband and radio communications projects, but with limited funds they will prioritize safety and emergency services.

Some of the ARPA funds have already been allocated, County Manager Mike Williams said Wednesday, including: $10,000 to hire an ARPA consultant; $15,000 annually, or $75,000 for five years, to replace 38 computers; and $15,000 to purchase an email program with improved cybersecurity, which would require updates every few years.

In October, commissioners also voted to give county employees premium pay worth $200 a month from March 2020 to June 2021, which Williams estimated was about $182,000 total, plus a $38,200 special payroll warrant that commissioners approved Tuesday.

Jaeme Duggan, Piscataquis County Emergency Management Agency director, wrote to the commissioners Dec. 15 requesting generators for Legion Hall in Brownville Junction, the Brownville Fire Department, the town of Guilford and the town of Monson.

Duggan provided cost estimates for each of the locations, which total $32,807.95. Legion Hall in Brownville Junction is also a certified American Red Cross shelter.

The generators are needed to offer residents safe shelter during an emergency, Duggan said at the meeting. Over the years, the EMA purchased several generators through Homeland Security grants. Due to COVID-19 restrictions limiting the number of people in one shelter and spacing requirements, there’s a need for more generators now, she said.

“Some of them [generators] have just reached end of life and don’t work anymore,” she said. “We’re just plain out of Homeland Security funding, due to COVID as well. There’s an urgent need that we can’t come up with this year.”

The EMA would continue to use Homeland Security grants for future needs, Duggan said.

Chairman James White asked if the burden should fall to the towns now that Homeland Security funds have run out.

Duggan said these towns typically wouldn’t have their own shelters. For example, Brownville residents typically travel to Milo, and Monson residents go to Greenville. These towns cannot accept outside residents now, due to COVID-19 restrictions, she noted.

“So now we just turn away our neighbors,” White said. “I wonder if that’s happening in Kentucky now. Are they turning away their neighbors because you don’t fall into my shelter? That’s disgusting.”

Commissioners tabled the request until January. They asked Duggan to contact the towns to see if they could offer any of their ARPA funds for the generators.

Brian Lippold, Casco Bay Advisers president, presented on his consulting firm’s broadband study, which assessed broadband infrastructure throughout Piscataquis County and identified gaps and how to fill them. The study estimated it would cost around $22-27 million to expand coverage to unserved areas.

The Piscataquis County Economic Development Council pursued the $60,000 report, which began three to four months ago and was paid for with a $30,000 ConnectMaine Authority grant, paired with $30,000 from municipality ARPA monies.

If the county decides to move ahead with the project and seek grant funding from the state, local funding and service providers would need to be identified first, Lippold said.

“The thing I just can’t help but ponder while you’re giving your speech is technology moves on quickly,” White said. “For $2,700,000 we could put Starlink in all 5,400 homes. It does everything that fiber does.”

Lippold said Starlink works well, but he understands the program can serve a finite number of subscribers within a geographic area.

“I think the key here is not to do a study that sits on a shelf somewhere,” PCEDC Executive Director John Shea said, suggesting the communities work together on a request for proposal for service providers and try to secure funding from the state and federal governments.

Shea said he’d like to keep Lippold on board to guide the county through the broadband process. He plans to apply for a $20,000 matching grant from the ConnectMaine Authority. The PCEDC can provide $5,000, and Shea asked commissioners to fund another $5,000 to obtain the $10,000 match. Commissioners will address the request at their next meeting in January.

“There’s plenty of competition for ARPA funds. … A lot of our radios [for emergency responders] are long past their life expectancy, and a percentage of them are past the ability to find replacement parts. Communication is a necessity,” White said.

“It comes down to us. Can we help you get your internet system hooked up so you can talk to your doctor? Or do we help the firemen get radios so they can respond when you have a heart attack?”

White and Commissioner Andrew Torbett agreed safety must be a priority.

Getting fiber to towers would help with the radio project, Duggan said. Communications Design Consulting Group presented findings to the commissioners in November, which suggested a $5 million upgrade to the county’s public safety radio system.

“If there’s a way, like Jaeme said, that these can mesh, I think we should evaluate that,” Torbett said.

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