Androscoggin commissioners discuss ideas for spending $21 million in rescue funds

·3 min read

Jun. 3—AUBURN — How to spend $21 million?

Daring to dream big, the Androscoggin County Commission brainstormed about potential projects and ideas on how to spend a $21 million windfall from the American Rescue Plan.

Hazard pay for all Androscoggin County employees. Stimulus checks for all county residents. Money to help nonprofits such as veterans' organizations. Trust fund to guarantee loans. Update and replace HVAC, heat and air conditioning at the aging Androscoggin County Courthouse and jail.

Everything was on the table Wednesday as commissioners spent nearly 45 minutes pondering a potential wish list of needed and worthwhile projects that could never be funded without a significant increase in county taxes.

Chairwoman Sally Christner of Turner said commissioners should avoid any spending that would negatively impact the budget in three to four years, forcing the county to raise taxes after the money is spent.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, signed into law March 11, includes $65.1 billion in direct aid, divided among every county in the nation. Maine's share of the funds for its counties is $261 million, with Cumberland County scheduled to receive the most at $57.2 million. The aid is designed to help counties recover economically from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The funds could be a game changer for the county, which was considering a $5 million bond for needed HVAC and heating repairs and upgrades for the Auburn jail and the courthouse, County Administrator Larry Post said.

"It looks like we don't need to do that now," Post said.

Commissioner Noel Madore of Lewiston said the first priority should be rewarding the county workforce in the county offices, Sheriff's Office and jail who were required to work throughout the pandemic as essential workers.

"I want to see some of the money go toward our staff," Madore said. "Everybody on the staff in Androscoggin County is deserving for hazard pay. I think it is important to recognize that."

The county should consider donating money to veterans organizations, Commissioner Terri Kelly of Mechanic Falls said. Those organizations, which support the county's veterans with assistance, outreach and social outlets were largely closed during the pandemic and unable to host their usual fundraisers. Rescue funds could help them recover some of that lost revenue and even provide money for needed maintenance and upgrades to their buildings.

Improving broadband service throughout the county would be a worthy investment Commissioner Roland Poirier of Lewiston said. The lack of Wi-Fi in certain areas is preventing some people from moving into Androscoggin County, he said.

Madore agreed with that assessment, saying the money should address deficiencies in the county.

Commissioner Isaiah Lary of Wales suggested returning the money to county residents as a one-time stimulus check. While the amount would not be huge, perhaps less than $200 he surmised, that could provide money for a car payment or other household needs.

Christner wondered if the county could set up a trust fund to provide no-interest loans for small businesses and communities. Some of her colleagues, while praising the idea, did not think it would meet the guidelines for spending the money.

Commissioners will reach out to the municipalities in the county for feedback on how the county can best utilize the money, Christner said.

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