BELFAST — Waldo County Commissioners announced July 29 that each of the 26 towns in the county will receive $20,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act. The massive relief package addresses negative economic effects of the pandemic and makes investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

According to Chairman of the Commissioners Amy Fowler, the county is receiving $7.7 million in total ARPA funds, $520,000 of which is going to Waldo County municipalities through the Commissioners’ Office. 

Towns are also receiving a larger allotment of money under the act from Local Fiscal Recovery Funds based on population. The Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services, which is administering these federal grants, has recently applied for a second 30-day extension to release the funds, now scheduled for disbursement in September.

The reason for the delay is that the state financial agency is setting up an online portal “assisting the state with implementing and monitoring other aspects of the rescue plan.” 

At an Aug. 10 ARPA projects planning workshop, Fowler said initially commissioners directed towns to put the funds from the county toward broadband efforts. “It was our thought that if towns pooled their money, there would be more opportunities for grants from the state of Maine through ConnectME,” she said.

Many towns, Fowler said, pushed back, saying the county did not know what certain towns needed or wanted.  “This has weighed very heavily on us,” she said. “…Therefore, we felt it was wrong to be so specific in our original correspondence.”

With most federal grants, Fowler said, a plan is submitted for approval prior to receiving funds. “Basically you know what is acceptable or what is needed to be changed prior to spending or receiving any funds,” she said.  With ARPA, nothing is straightforward, she noted.

“The EMA director and myself personally wrote to our four congressional representatives specifically asking for clear direction and guidance, as this was outrageous from the start, and heard nothing.”

Counties have received half of the allocated money already, she said, with the other half to come in a year and a half. “The rules as to how this money can be spent were nonexistent initially, and slowly (actually weekly) are updated and/or created,” she said.

“The original reporting date was July 31, but then changed to Aug. 31. Therefore, you have to submit your invoices on money you have already spent and cross your fingers and toes that it falls in line with the current rules. Or it is rejected and you have to pay it back.

“If we don’t get this right,” Fowler said, “we, the taxpayers, will have to pay it back. That’s $7.7 million. The last thing we want to do is burn the taxpayers, or anybody else, with a bad decision, and that is why we’ve tried to be very careful and cautious.” For this reason, she said, the county has hired an attorney to assist it with the process.

For their part, Fowler said, the commissioners have tried to keep it simple with the $20,000 checks to towns being sent Aug. 31. And after careful consideration, the commissioners sent letters to all the towns changing their initial directive that the funds must be spent on broadband.

The money given to municipalities by the county can be spent by each select board as it sees fit, Fowler said, “kind of so long as you follow the rules.”

“We have to hope the towns will utilize that $20,000 for something that is approved,” Fowler said, “because at the end of the day, we, the county, have to be able to defend and explain how the towns spent their allocations.”

The Waldo County Garden Project on Swan Lake Avenue is the proposed site for new Emergency Management Agency offices and warehouse space. Photo by Fran Gonzalez

Emergency Management Director Dale Rowley said the idea for a new county EMA facility came from a brainstorming session with department heads and commissioners about long-term improvements to county government that could be made with the ARPA funding. Currently Rowley’s EMA office is at the Waldo County Sheriff’s Department, where space is at a premium. 

The plan is to move EMA operations to a 60-acre parcel where the Waldo County Garden Project currently operates in Swanville. EMA’s current office space would then be used by the District Attorney’s Office, now housed in the former Superior Court building at the corner of Market and Church streets. 

According to Rowley, the old Superior Court building is a “nightmare” with no insulation and a boiler that keeps failing. “It’s a black hole when it comes to expenses,” he said. “They (commissioners) would like to get out of the Superior Court building,” he said, with only 11 people in the entire building.

The new 4,800-square-foot EMA office with garage will have an additional 10,000-square-foot warehouse. Food-storing equipment for harvested vegetables from the garden would also be located in the warehouse to keep produce longer. Rowley estimates the EMA building and garage will cost $1.1 million in addition to $1.5 million for the warehouse. 

An architect was hired and a survey has been scheduled; he hopes to break ground by next spring. According to Rowley, other capital projects discussed with the commissioners include a new roof for the Waldo County Regional Communications Center and a $1.2 million technology upgrade of its radio system. 

The Sheriff’s Office is “bursting at the seams,” he said. If the plan moves forward, the Sheriff’s Office could stand to pick up two or three offices and a classroom, which it uses a lot, Rowley said. The District Attorney’s Office would also pick up two offices, along with several other offices planned after converting the garage at the sheriff’s facility to office space.

Not everyone is on board with all the projects outlined.

Palermo Select Board member Bob Kurek, who is also the chairman of the South Western Waldo County Broadband Coalition, pleaded with commissioners for additional funding to bring broadband to underserved areas of the district at the Aug. 10 workshop. At a previous commissioners meeting, officials from SWCBC presented ideas for a municipally run broadband utility that could become a money-making venture after paying off initial bonds to build the infrastructure.

“We’re happy to be getting $20,000 for each town,” he noted. “It will help us get some things moving. At the same time, we are disappointed we’re not getting more ARPA funds for broadband.”

Kurek said he was also concerned about the county’s having no oversight from an elected treasurer or budget committee, and having limited public input in deciding where the money is spent. “I’m afraid this might open you up to criticism,” he said. “You’ve pretty much made up your mind how you want to spend these funds.”

As taxpayers, he said, we will be paying for these ARPA funds for a long time. “In my opinion, I’d like to see these funds used to provide for a long-lived asset that solves a problem and has the potential for a long-term payback.” 

The Maine Municipal Association has compiled a list outlining how much towns can expect to receive in state ARPA monies. Visit  tinyurl.com/t5t2wr5d for an estimate of the federal benefit for each municipality in the state. 

The National League of Cities has published what municipalities with fewer than 50,000 residents should do to receive their allotment of federal funds and what these funds can be used for, along with frequently asked questions. Visit  tinyurl.com/drk5k825 for more information. 

For more information on Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, visit  tinyurl.com/xfd8ymam.

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