A woman walks a dog Nov. 30 outside the Augusta Civic Center. Though the center was beginning to rebound earlier last summer from a slew of 2020 cancellations, a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the delta variant prompted most bookings for September and October to cancel, leaving the venue operating at a loss. New federal rules will now allow city officials to use some pandemic relief funds to offset losses at the facility. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — A change in the rules for how communities can spend federal pandemic relief funds has Augusta officials planning to use some of its share of those funds to offset $600,000 in revenue losses at the Augusta Civic Center this year, and maybe set aside a lesser amount in anticipation of continuing losses there in the near future.

The city-owned auditorium and meeting space financially struggled during the worst parts of the coronavirus pandemic as, based on public health concerns about spreading COVID-19, large public gatherings were canceled and people switched from in-person to online gatherings.

City Manager Susan Robertson said the initial, interim rules for how the federal pandemic relief funds could be used did not allow municipalities to use them to offset pandemic-related revenue losses. But the final rules, she told city councilors Thursday, are much more flexible in what they allow funds to be used for, and offsetting lost revenues is among the newly allowed eligible uses.

For Augusta that means using $600,000 to offset revenues lost at the civic center this year, which are estimated to be about that amount, funds that otherwise would have needed to be covered by the general fund and regular city budget. Robertson said under the previous rules, the city would have had a hard time finding enough eligible expenses and may have had to return some of the $987,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds the city has to spend on expenses from the current fiscal year.

Instead, the city plans to use $600,000 to offset center losses, $183,000 to cover pandemic-related overtime costs in the Fire Department, $72,000 to cover public works time spent collecting additional rubbish during the pandemic, and $31,000 in increased medical supply costs.

“It would offset the loss at the civic center, which is pretty substantial,” Robertson said. “After looking at this with the final changes in the rule, we won’t have to send money back. We’ve been able to identify things that now qualify, that’s been a big relief for us. Fortunately, the Department of the Treasury heard the comments that were made throughout the country about how difficult it was to use the money.”


City officials also anticipate Augusta receiving a second installment of American Rescue Plan Act funds this year, also just under $1 million, to be spent under the same rules.

So Robertson suggested councilors consider putting aside another $300,000 from the next round of American Rescue Plan Act funds to cover potential revenue losses at the civic center over the next year. She said the facility is doing much better financially so it wouldn’t need another $600,000 but is still not at 100% of capacity in its use and it can be hard to predict the future potential impact of COVID-19. She said if the facility doesn’t lose that much, the city could use those funds for something else.

City staff presented several other things the city could do with the roughly $1 million Augusta expects to come in additional ARPA funds, which, together, total $1.6 million, well over the available funding.

Jared Mills, assistant city manager and police chief, said staff wanted to give councilors options for eligible spending, and were not suggesting each item should be funded.

Other potential uses listed by city staff included:

• $405,000 to replace the heart monitors used by rescue workers, an item Mills said will need to be funded anyway, either as part of the regular city budget or with ARPA funds.


• $212,000 to purchase body cameras for police.

• Between $107,000 and $214,000 to provide premium pay for city employees as a bonus for working through the pandemic.

• $175,000 to help offset the future cost of replacing underground utilities on Front Street.

• $150,000 to help fund a new city program helping residents in need of substance-use and recovery treatment;

• $75,000 to help offset the costs of affordable housing development, such as by Augusta Housing Authority.

• $50,000 for cleanup projects in the Sand Hill area of the city.

Staff also suggested $200,000 in pandemic relief funds could be used to help cover the cost of removing an underground sewer line that runs through the planned future location of the city’s new police station. However, Mayor Mark O’Brien said with that work already to be covered by a 20-year, $20.5 million bond voters authorized to pay for the police station project, the city would get more bang out of its buck by using the pandemic relief funds for other uses, and other councilors agreed.

City staff will gather and provide more information on eligible projects for the ARPA funds before councilors decide how to use them. Robertson said the city has until 2024 to use the funds.

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