ELLSWORTH — Do city police and firefighters deserve a $3,000 bonus for showing up to work?
City councilors discussed the question on Nov. 15 before voting 5-2 to spend $1,000 apiece on 10 firefighters and 18 police officers who worked the pandemic months between March 2020 and June 2021. The money will be double matched by the County Commissioners – an additional $2,000 per responder. This will bring the bonuses closer to the $3,750 that jail employees, sheriff’s deputies and regional communications employees will receive.
The match idea came from City Manager and Police Chief Glenn Moshier, who suggested it to commissioners last August during hazard pay discussions for county employees.
“If this passes, I think it leaves 9,000 taxpayers out of everything,” said Councilor Gene Lyons at Monday’s council meeting. “They’re just as important as people who work for the city. They pay their wages.”
Lyons voted against the measure.
Councilor Steven O’Halloran spoke in favor of all city employees receiving a pandemic bonus as hazard pay.
“All your employees signed up for risky jobs,” O’Halloran told Fire Chief Scott Guillerault and Deputy Police Chief Troy Bires, prior to voting against the measure. “[Other] city employees did not, but they had one.”
The commissioners have approved $1,875 in hazard pay for county employees outside of the Sheriff’s Office and jail.
The city and county will each use American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for the pandemic bonus. The difference is that Ellsworth was allocated $815,000 and the county $10 million.
Council Chairman Dale Hamilton found fault with the County Commissioners, saying their decision forces communities to debate which employees and citizens they value.
“Everybody in this country has been facing the same challenges,” he said. “And here we are now with taxpayer money trying to figure out who are we going to reward in local and county government because there’s a disconnect in terms of these kinds of discussions.”
He ensured that no time frame be included in the motion to award the funds to city first responders, as the pandemic continues and locally is perhaps at its worst right now.
“Our first responders do an incredible job every single day,” he added. “My comments are not directed at individuals but the larger system and how this played out.”
Ellsworth has already received $440,000 and should receive the remaining balance next year. Funds must be allocated within three years and spent within five years.
There are restrictions on spending ARPA funds, though. Allowed uses mostly relate to the overall COVID-19 response but also include modifying, enhancing and expanding health-care services and infrastructure, in general, and allow for spending on early childhood education and broadband.
Hamilton said that the community should start thinking of ideas for using the remaining ARPA allocation.
“Let voices be heard on how that funding should be used,” he said.