On its way to infect 80 million Americans, COVID hit all levels of government with a double whammy.

Just as more people needed emergency services, the COVID recession put people out of work and dried up economic activity.

Thanks to timely and sizable intervention by the federal government, the recovery has been quick. Maine has recovered all of the jobs it lost to the pandemic, and the state government has a $1 billion revenue surplus this year.

But the disruption to local government has not passed, and given high inflation and a tight job market, it will be a while before local budgets find equilibrium.

Fortunately, federal funds that were included last year in the American Rescue Plan Act to help municipal governments. Maine’s share was $191 million, and half of that has not been committed yet.

That’s as it should be. The recovery is not instantaneous, and the assistance should be spent judiciously.

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How the money spent will differ from place to place.

For instance, the city of Portland has used about half of its $46.2 million share to replace lost revenues, like parking and cruise ship docking fees, which crashed during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Lewiston has committed almost all of the $20 million it received to pay for sewer improvements, which will negate the need for borrowing.

Maine’s counties have also received funds, and they have been even slower to allocate their spending, but that’s not because they don’t need the money.

For the most part, counties provide services to cities and towns, not individuals. Their budgets are funded by assessments to municipalities, and those governments need to have a say in how the federal funds are expended.

But county governments can use their federal funds much as cities are doing and invest the one-time money in projects that will be used for a long time.

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For instance, Cumberland County is planning to spend $6 million out of the $57 million it received on a medical wing for the the jail. Washington County is upgrading its dispatch equipment, and Sagadahoc County will get a new roof for its historic courthouse.

Other counties have used the funds for premium pay, which will keep essential services in operation at a time when employees are hard to find and retain.

These spending decisions don’t have to be made in haste. The municipalities and counties have until the end of 2024 to commit the funds and until 2027 to spend the money.

As long as the process used to identify projects is transparent and the public has an opportunity to weigh in, no one should be concerned that the money has not already been committed to projects.

The pandemic arrived suddenly, but its impact will be with us for a long time. Local officials should do what they can to keep delivering the services that people need until COVID is finally behind us.

 


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