The Hancock County Commissioners have a happy – if potentially knotty – problem to solve. How to spend $10.6 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds awarded over the next two years. Of course, there are strings attached. So many that the county has hired a consultant to help guide officials through the process of allocating the funds in the most impactful manner.
Hancock County has roughly 55,000 residents. Short of handing each $192 (sorry, not an allowable use), there’s no way the money will touch every life. It needn’t. Many people weathered the pandemic just fine from an economic perspective. Well-off retirees saw their investments grow. Some businesses had their best year yet. Stimulus payments, loans and expanded unemployment benefits buoyed companies and households. Employers are now desperate for workers. Parents this month started receiving monthly child tax credit payments, expected to lift many families above the poverty line, if only temporarily. So, while 2020 was a very bad year, the financial pain was not spread equally. For many, things are looking up.
Counties and municipalities may spend their American Rescue Plan dollars to alleviate some of the lingering hurt and/or to invest in forward-thinking projects. Among the allowable uses per federal guidelines are public health expenses, addressing negative economic impacts, replacing lost government revenue, premium pay for essential workers who faced the greatest health risks, and water, sewer and broadband infrastructure improvements.
The Hancock County Commissioners intend to use $300,000 of the funds for direct grants to nonprofit groups through a competitive application process. The need there will certainly outpace the funds allocated. Beyond that, county officials are seeking community input on how to spend the millions. Workforce housing was considered but largely dismissed by the commissioners because only a small number of individuals would benefit. Expanding broadband internet drew wide favor, but how to decide which corners of the county are most deserving? The state’s Broadband Action Plan puts a roughly $35,000-per-mile price tag on the cost of installing cable. It could be a great opportunity for towns to coordinate with the county to pool resources and leverage the bargaining power of a larger collection of projects.
Addressing homelessness and the opioid epidemic were also brought up as potential target areas. We would add bolstering child care options in the area and supporting programs that see to the social-emotional needs of older residents to the mix. A shortage of quality, affordable child care negatively affects families and employers and hinders future economic growth. Meanwhile, the pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on seniors and they could use some extra support.
In the end, there will be loads of good ways to spend the money and only so much of it to go around. No one knows better what could help the community than the people that live in it. Now is the time to share your ideas. Make your pitch at hancockcountymaine.gov/american-rescue-plan.