AUGUSTA — With nearly $24 million in federal relief funds to spend in the next several years, Kennebec County officials will hold a public forum Monday to hear from cities, towns and nonprofits across the county about what their spending priorities are for the American Rescue Plan Act money.

Some communities already have ideas on where they’d like to see some of the money go.

Augusta has submitted an application for $1.8 million to pay for a roof replacement at the Augusta Civic Center.

Gardiner is considering seeking funds for a new ambulance or for projects improving outside space in the city.

Others are still fine-tuning their requests.

“This isn’t just a free bucket of money,” Kennebec County Administrator Robert Devlin said last week to the Kennebec County commissioners at their meeting.

In August, county officials unveiled their plan to distribute the federal funds via a grant program. Applications, including those from county departments seeking funding, are expected to be reviewed by the county Budget Committee, made up of municipal officials from across the county. Its recommendations, based on the eligibility standards set by the U.S. Treasury, will be sent to the commissioners for a final determination.

How the money can be used is spelled out in the legislation that created the American Rescue Plan Act, Devlin said, and he’s been recommending that municipal officials review for themselves how the money can be spent.

“It takes a little time,” he said. “It has to be tied to COVID, the response to COVID or the economic impact of COVID. I’ve heard some very creative arguments.”

Across Kennebec County, cities and towns are receiving a total of nearly $10 million allocated through the stimulus package, based on population. Augusta is slated to receive nearly $1.9 million and Waterville is slated to receive about $1.65 million, while Fayette’s share will be $120,000 and Vienna’s will be about $60,000.

Keith Luke, economic development director for the city of Augusta, said he’s reviewed the Federal Register, which contains both information about the program as well as the legislative intent behind the funding.

“There are a couple of things that were frustrating about it,” Luke said. “The categories this funding applies to are very limited.”

While there is some room for creativity, applications need to focus on resiliency, water and sewer projects,  broadband and childcare, Luke said, and things that can be linked directly to COVID-19 and emergency response.”

Augusta’s $1.785 million application for the Civic Center’s roof replacement checks off several eligibility boxes.

“This was going to be part of our capital improvement program, and if we can get this funded in this way, it’s a burden lifted from the taxpayers of Augusta,” he said.

Augusta taxpayers have shouldered the entire cost of owning and operating the Civic Center, which is a regional asset, he said, and its roof needs to be replaced immediately.

No other roof in central Maine sheltered more recipients of the COVID-19 vaccine than the Civic Center, he said, noting that it served as a mass vaccination site earlier this year.

For officials in Gardiner, at the top of the list is an additional ambulance.

“As you recall, we had a budget season where we did cut some things,” Acting City Manager Anne Davis told the Gardiner City Council last week.

Davis said she didn’t want to duplicate the city’s plans for its own allotment of funds and thought that a request based on regional services would be more palatable for the county to fund.

“We have the opportunity to ask for them to buy us an ambulance,” she said.

The Gardiner Ambulance Service, staffed by the Gardiner Fire Department, serves eight and a half communities across the southern Kennebec County area.

Alternatively, the city could also ask for funds to renovate McKay Park or the Cobbossee Trail because they relate to keeping people healthy and connected.

The funds are being sent to counties, cities and towns in two payments. One has already been made this year, and the second is expected to arrive next year. Under the terms of the program, the funds have to be obligated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.

The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. in the first floor conference room at Hill House, the Kennebec County government building at 125 State Street.

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