ELLSWORTH — Some might say Hancock County’s excess of $10 million to spend is a good problem to have, but the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds are causing friction between the Hancock County Commissioners and local municipalities.
“Spending $10 million is a big responsibility,” said Commissioner John Wombacher midway through a second debate last week about the county’s plan to use some of the money to provide hazard pay for first responders who worked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first discussion occurred at the board’s Aug. 17 meeting and the subject was raised again when it convened on Sept. 8.
The commissioners had initially proposed $5,000 for each first responder, which includes the Sheriff’s Office, including corrections officers at the jail and the Hancock County Regional Communications Center staff. The county also planned $2,500 for each non-first responder employee.
However, Ellsworth City Manager and Police Chief Glenn Moshier sounded an alarm in August, stating that the measure wasn’t fair to the rest of the first responders in Hancock County whose municipalities wouldn’t be able to provide the same level of hazard pay.
Municipalities are slated to receive significantly less than Hancock County. Ellsworth anticipates approximately $815,000.
At the commissioners’ Sept. 8 meeting, Bucksport Town Manager Susan Lessard shared her concerns about the measure. Moshier also reiterated his concerns.
“I support this,” Lessard told the board. “My concern is that the fine men and women who serve this county don’t all work for the county, but they provide EMS services that are important for this county. The standard you set is one no other community can meet because we can’t meet those resources. I wouldn’t be standing here if the county said they were doing $1,000 for their law enforcement. The $5,000 made ours look like nothing.” Bucksport is slated to receive slightly over $500,000 in ARPA funds.
Paradis said he agreed to support the $5,000 because the county is out of sync with what other municipalities pay their first responders.
“I was against this proposal because of what’s happening right here,” said Paradis. “Ms. Lessard, you’re questioning whether that’s a valid way of doing it. I thought it was a way to get there without it being on the community’s backs [through taxation]. I guess I was wrong and it’s a can of worms.”
Schoodic Peninsula resident Shemaya Laurel, who attended the meeting via Zoom, said she agreed with Moshier.
“I’m really hoping you all might consider making some kind of a public hearing specifically how to use the ARPA money in the best way,” Laurel said.
Clark said he wanted to remind the public that there is a form on the county website to submit ideas for use of the funds.
“We review that often and consider those comments,” Clark said.
Clark suggested that the county consider providing matching funds for each municipality that provides its first responders with hazard pay.
“We need to know: A. who are these people and B. to what extent is it going to cost and C. do we want to appropriate that from ARPA funds,” the chairman said.
Paradis replied, “I almost see it as a waste of time because with two communities, you start adding the numbers and it becomes unattainable.”
Moshier said the county should set parameters and a timetable for submitting the information.
“If there are communities out there who for whatever reason don’t feel the need to put the effort in for their employees, then that’s on that community,” Moshier said. “We feel this is a valuable resource for us to tap into to reward our employees.”
The hazard pay funding issue has brought county officials to the realization that every possible program to be funded by the county could bring similar debate.
“The same thing is going to happen when it comes to broadband,” said Wombacher. “We have towns in Hancock County where there’s no broadband at all. There are sewer problems in one town but there aren’t in another.”
County Administrator Scott Adkins replied, “My recommendation to the board is to go back and take a look at things and say how do I want to split this baby up?”
The towns and one city in Hancock County are slated to receive a total of $5.4 million. Adkins suggested telling the municipalities, “We’re going to match what ARPA sent to you, it’s up to you what you do with it.”
The chairman is not in favor of that suggestion.
“You’re going to destroy our ability to do anything meaningful with broadband,” Clark said.
After lengthy debate, the board voted to reduce the hazard pay for the first responders on the county’s payroll to 75 percent of the initial amount pitched. So, first responders will receive $3,750 and county employees who aren’t first responders will receive $1,875.
The vote was 2-1, with Clark and Wombacher supporting the measure and Paradis opposed.
“What these folks said, I see every community having this concern,” Paradis said. “The only way to alleviate that is Scott’s plan.”
“It was never my goal for the amounts to be reduced,” Moshier said after the meeting. “I was simply looking for equitable treatment for all first responders who have put themselves in harm’s way throughout the pandemic to protect the citizens of Hancock County. That being said, this is still a significant amount of money, but with a matching program like the commissioners discussed it is a more attainable figure for municipalities to reach and therefore ensure fair treatment for all.”