In the past month, one out of every hundred residents of Aroostook County tested positive for COVID-19, according to a Sept. 15 story in the BDN and County weekly newspapers. Right now and throughout the entirety of this pandemic, we’ve done what Mainers always do: look out for each other and come together in a time of crisis.
We’ve seen government and nonprofits come together to quickly distribute CARES Act funding to nonprofits in our communities that provide essential services and jobs and benefit quality of life. These nonprofits are on the frontlines providing increased food assistance, mental health supports, childcare and housing. They have been a lifeline to many, but we all recognize the need is greater and we are faced with important decisions ahead.
On March 11, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (HR 1319) was signed into law. As a result, Maine counties are estimated to receive $262 million, municipalities $118 million, and public land counties $115 million. At the county level, Aroostook will receive $13 million, with individual municipalities receiving additional funding, presenting us with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in our communities.
The federal government trusted that communities closest to the people and their problems would be best positioned to make funding decisions.
However, these funds must be obligated by Dec. 31, 2024, and spent by Dec. 31, 2026, and have limited ‘eligible’ uses: support public health expenditures; address negative economic impacts to workers, households, small businesses and impacted industries; replace lost public sector revenue for government services; provide premium pay for essential workers; and invest in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.
Aroostook County officials have the responsibility to make spending decisions. We are very fortunate that County government here has historically brought nonprofit organizations and area businesses to the table to work collaboratively to best meet the needs of County residents. Officials are currently developing a program statement that will be available for public comment and feedback by all citizens in Aroostook County, including nonprofits, municipal leaders and anyone else whose voice should and needs to be heard.
We look forward to this critical conversation on how these potentially transformative dollars will be directed, and to how we, as nonprofit leaders and local businesses, will have the opportunity to provide input and engage in the process. Aroostook is one big small town and many of us wear many hats. Whether it be coaching the Little League team or serving on a board or volunteering at the local food bank, we recognize that the challenges of one are the challenges of all.
This is a one-time windfall, and I know that our County Commissioners and all stakeholders think carefully about best uses for the funds in plotting the path toward recovery. Partnerships with Maine’s nonprofits will allow for funding to be distributed effectively and efficiently, leveraging resources, relationships, and strengths to serve communities even better.
We know the statistics – 26.4 percent of our kids are living with food insecurity and te estimated poverty rate in The County is 17.7 percent, according to the John T. Gorman Foundation. Preliminary results of the 2021 Aroostook County Comprehensive Needs Assessment show our own community members’ rank lack of affordable and supportive housing, the need for more behavioral health and substance use services, transportation, childcare, and connecting unemployed and underemployed residents with employment as the top concerns in our region.
Counties should balance investments in water, sewer and broadband with the public good and community well-being. Our neighbors are still facing challenging times and we must invest in both our social and our traditional infrastructure.
Through the foresight and leadership of our County Commissioners and administrator, the work has already started. Steve Pelletier of Fort Kent has been named as ARP Fund Manager. This critical role is being funded both by the Aroostook County allocation, but also by towns and municipalities who value this role in an ongoing partnership. I congratulate Steve and look forward to working with him as he assumes his new role in the coming weeks.
Aroostook County nonprofits have always been at the forefront of community reforms and are ready to assist in this effort. Our county officials are ready to manage these funds with the oversight and care necessary. Let’s take this incredible opportunity and do what we always do — work collaboratively and take care of each other.
Jason Parent is a board member for the Maine Association of Nonprofits. A St. John Valley native, he lives in Presque Isle.