Augusta Mayor David Rollins during a city council goal-setting event on Jan. 11 at the Augusta Civic Center. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — A text Augusta Mayor David Rollins received from a seemingly random Chicago-based nonprofit group is expected to bring nearly $210,000 to Augusta to help the city run the upcoming election amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The unexpected grant offer, from the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life, is meant to help the city provide safe, accessible voting to all who wish to vote this November. The source of the funds is a donation from the co-founder of Facebook.

It’s a funding source that Augusta likely wouldn’t have tapped into had Rollins not gotten a text a couple of weeks ago from the nonprofit organization, stating it had grant money available to help municipalities with elections. Rollins initially just figured it was another of the many texts he gets, as mayor, for various solicitations. He ran it by members of city staff who looked into it and said the offer appeared to be legitimate.

“In the realm of getting 50 of those (solicitations), this is the first to come to fruition,” Rollins said. “It’s like a blind squirrel finding a nut. These don’t drop into our lap everyday.”

The only initial mention of a dollar figure in the grant application materials was that the grants were for a minimum of $5,000. So city officials were very surprised when they learned the city would be getting a check for nearly $210,000.

“We thought it’d be nice to have $5,000 to help with the election,” City Manager William Bridgeo said. “We welcome the money and will be conscientious about not abusing it and hopefully making voting easier for our citizens.”

City Manager William Bridgeo listens during an Augusta City Council goal-setting event Jan. 11 at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Bridgeo said the funds are not supposed to be spent on things already budgeted for by municipalities, and since the election had already largely been budgeted for by the city, he doesn’t anticipate the city spending anywhere near the full amount, of $209,000, offered to it. He said the city will return any unspent funds to the nonprofit organization.

But city officials said there are multiple things the newfound money could help with in the election, possibly including helping to provide transportation for voters to and from the polls on Election Day.

Bridgeo said city officials are still working on what the funds will be used for, but possibilities for its use include: paying to have more absentee ballots, which the city was about to run out of, printed and shipped in time for the election; feeding poll workers during the election; taking out advertisements telling residents where they can vote and of the various ways they can cast their vote; paying additional workers to sanitize polling places; and increasing poll worker pay.

Bridgeo is consulting with city staff on how the funds could be used and said he is also open to any suggestions on how it could be used to make voting easier for Augusta residents in the upcoming election.

Municipalities across the country are getting money to help with their elections from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit group which was given a $250 million donation by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, according to the group’s website.

“Due to the unprecedented challenges COVID-19 will have on voting across the country, election officials are working around the clock to make sure that every voter has the ability to participate safely and have their vote counted,” Chan and Zuckerberg said in a prepared statement. “Many counties and states are strapped financially and working to determine how to staff and fund operations that will allow for ballots to be cast and counted in a timely way. These donations help provide local and state officials across the country with the resources, training and infrastructure necessary to ensure that every voter who intends to cast a ballot is able to, and ultimately, to preserve the integrity of our elections.”

Bridgeo had already approved increasing the pay of poll workers by 25%, to $15 an hour, in order to try to secure enough workers to cover voting locations in the city’s four wards. But he said money to do so was not included in the last budget, so the money needed to fund their raises may be eligible for the grant funding.

Rollins and Bridgeo said using the money to provide some form of transportation for voters, especially those without their own vehicles, to and from the polls is an option the city can explore.

While some municipalities are expected to spend some of the money on ballot drop boxes, Augusta already has one of those in place, where voters can deposit their absentee ballots anytime, outside Augusta City Center.

The grant does not require any local matching funds. Bridgeo said the web-based grant application only asked for a minimal amount of information, including city population, budget and its budget for elections. He said Rollins was texted about it two days before the deadline, the week before last.

After looking into the group and verifying the Center for Tech and Civic Life appeared to be a legitimate entity, he authorized Tracy Roy, treasurer and acting director of finance and administration, to apply for funding. Last Wednesday, the city heard back from the center, and learned it would send the city a check for $209,874.

The agreement requires city council authorization for any of the funds to be spent and cannot supplant appropriations already made by the city for this year’s election.

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