AUGUSTA — With about $47 million in grant requests now under review, Kennebec County officials are moving closer to deciding how $23.7 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds will be spent.

But first, the applications that have been submitted so far are to be ranked over the next couple of weeks before they are forwarded to the Kennebec County Commissioners to decide how funds will be awarded.

“Everybody’s chomping at the bit, and I understand it,” County Administrator Scott Ferguson said recently.

Among its other provisions, the American Rescue Plan Act funnels federal funds to county and local governments that were left out of earlier federal COVID-19 relief packages to cover costs tied to the emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic or its economic impact and water and sewer infrastructure, among other things.

The Kennebec County Correctional Facility in Augusta, photographed in September 2020. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

While cities and towns are receiving their own allotment of funds under the American Rescue Plan Act, those shares, based on population, are far less than what counties are receiving. Outside of New England, county governments have more responsibilities, such as elections, assessment and highway maintenance, and have more expenses as as a result.

Kennebec County is slated to receive $23.7 million in two payments. One was made about a year ago, and other is due shortly. By comparison, all the municipalities in Kennebec County combined are receiving $9.95 million.

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Even though the first payments were made nearly a year ago, the rules about how the money could be used were still being developed and drafted.

“The guidance has been, ‘Don’t rush it,'” Ferguson said.

Initially, the plan was to hire a grants manager to oversee the process, with the county’s budget committee reviewing proposals to make funding recommendations to the county commissioners. But when Ferguson was hired as county administrator, he opted to take a different tack.

Rather than hiring a permanent employee for a limited period of time, the county contracted with BerryDunn, a certified public accounting and management consulting firm, following a request for proposals. The firm is to review and rank the proposals for the commissioners to consider, and complete risk assessments on applicants to determine how successful they have been in the past with federal grants.

Some of those funds have already been committed by the county. To date, the county has tapped funds for its own projects, including a full-body scanner for the Kennebec County Correctional Center, premium pay for essential employees and pay incentives for county employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The Kennebec County Budget Committee reviewed those projects briefly earlier this month as part of its review of the county’s proposed spending plan.

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“Everybody’s wondering how the county is going to make decisions on what gets spent,” said Sarah Fuller, chairwoman of the budget committee and chairwoman of the Winthrop Town Council. “Since our constituents are closest to the folks on the budget committee and have more regular contact with us than the commissioners, they were hoping that we would play some role in some part of the decision-making process on the (American Rescue Plan Act) funds.”

District 2 County Commissioner Nancy Rines said at that meeting that commissioners have been conservative in waiting until the final rules were pushed out before making decisions about granting money, noting commissioners decided early on to make grants based on broad benefits to the county.

“We’re not really under obligation to spend the money until December 2024. It needs to be spent by December 2026,” Ferguson said. “The other thing that needs to be considered — and that’s why due care is being taken here — if you push money out to a project and they spend it and it doesn’t qualify, we’re on the hook for that.”

Ferguson said the county will also consider whether requesters are seeking funds from the state to understand whether they are piecing together funding to complete a project or are seeking full funding from multiple agencies.

In addition to the towns and counties, Ferguson said he has also reached out to the business community to gauge interest from businesses looking for help with lost revenue.

Fuller said businesses might not be interested, based on their experiences with earlier federal aid and the paperwork required.

“They may have washed their hands of it,” she said.

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