Mar. 20—LEWISTON — The cities of Lewiston and Auburn are slated to receive millions of dollars in aid from the federal relief bill, but officials are mostly in the dark about how it can be used.
According to estimates from the Maine Municipal Association, Lewiston will receive $22.8 million, while Auburn will get $14.2 million. That's on top of some $21 million coming to the Androscoggin County government.
"It's truly transformative," Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque said this week.
The massive $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan bill, signed into law March 11, is designed to speed up the country's recovery from the economic and health impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But state and local governments have spent the days following the bill's passage trying to sift through what it all means.
So far, officials have seen big numbers that could be a game changer for local governments, but have received little guidance on how the money can be allocated. They're trying to balance a sense of optimism with a conservative approach to applying the funds.
Lewiston Mayor Mark Cayer said there is excitement among staff and elected officials because this level of federal funding is rare, but he said the city must "be thoughtful in our approach with the available funding."
"I do not look at this as a windfall," he said. "I look at this as taxpayer dollars that have been provided to communities, but the spending will have to go through the exact scrutiny that our budget goes through."
Levesque said last week that the funding should be used in a way "that will have a positive return on investment," adding that he plans to put together a summit of regional leaders to discuss potential infrastructure projects and other needs once more information is known.
"We can do so much for the future benefit of our tax base," he said.
The only solid information municipalities have received has come from the Maine Municipal Association, which sent a spreadsheet detailing funding allocations for city, county and state governments.
As a state, Maine is expected to receive nearly $1.7 billion, with some $118 million earmarked for Maine's five largest cities, which include Lewiston and Auburn. The estimates are based on U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data from fiscal year 2020.
Another $115 million would be disbursed by the state to other towns and cities based mostly on population, but municipalities will not be able to receive more than three-quarters of their most recent annual budget as of 2020.
According to the Maine Municipal Association, the money would be delivered in two separate allotments, the first likely coming in May, and the second roughly a year later.
Additionally, Maine county governments are splitting a staggering $261 million. This week, after digesting the news, commissioners in Androscoggin County pushed back against Commissioner Noel Madore, who had shared spending ideas with the Sun Journal, telling him it was too soon to discuss what to do with the funds.
"We need to step back, take a breath and find out what the criteria is," Chairwoman Sally Christner of Turner said.
The only information provided in the Maine Municipal Association correspondence on the use of money states that municipalities, through their municipal legislative bodies, may choose to use relief funds "to respond to the coronavirus health emergency or its negative economic impacts, including by establishing programs to assist households, small businesses, and nonprofits or to assist impacted industries such as tourism, travel and hospitality."
It says the funds may also be used to replace lost municipal revenue and to make "necessary investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure."
Stephen Gove, executive director of the Maine Municipal Association, said the organization has not received any additional information following its initial communication to municipalities last week.
He said MMA is waiting for the U.S. Treasury Department "to issue rules and guidance which we hope will make it clear when the (American Rescue Plan) funds will be coming to Maine and how those funds may be used as prescribed by the ARP Act language."
Gove said he learned Thursday that the Treasury Department has up to 60 days to issue its guidance.
To Levesque, the focus on infrastructure said it could mean joint Lewiston-Auburn talks on a water filtration plant at Lake Auburn, which he has argued will be needed in the coming years regardless of the related debate over more recreation there. But he said the infrastructure backlog in Maine is well-known.
Madore told the Sun Journal that it's a "no-brainer" for part of the county government's share to be put toward deferred maintenance at the county building.
For city governments just beginning budget season, the funds could play a role in next year's budget and what it means for taxpayers. In Lewiston, the initial budget outlook for next year calls for a $2.26 increase to the property tax rate, driven mostly by a 6.9% increase to the school budget, but several elected officials have already said those numbers are too high.
The municipal budget includes reinstating 12 positions that were frozen in this year's budget due to the pandemic.
Lewiston City Administrator Denis D'Auteuil said last week that once officials understand the allowed uses of the funding "we will be in a better position to understand how it will impact the city's budget."
"There is potential for the relief bill to impact budget discussions, and any information we learn about the relief bill will be brought to the City Council for review and discussion as part of the budget process," he said.
Cayer said he could list several things that he feels the funds could be used for, but he simply hasn't seen enough guidance. On top of that, he said, "everything needs to be thoughtfully scrutinized."
But, he said, "Am I a little excited that we have this opportunity? I am, because we have put things off so badly."