Portland will seek public input on use of rescue act funds

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Portland officials will try to include the public’s suggestions about using the city’s remaining $23 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding.

During a June 24 Finance Committee meeting, City Manager Jon Jennings said municipalities around the country are waiting for further guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department about rules governing the use of the federal funds.

Portland received around $46 million in two payments: the first was 60 days after the plan was approved by Congress last year, and the second came a year later.

“We are recommending to the City Council and the mayor that we take this process a little slower,” Jennings said, to determine the best eligible uses.

The city previously used ARPA funding to offset revenue losses experienced during the coronavirus pandemic.

“City staff are putting together a comprehensive list of potential projects and uses that we believe would be covered by the American Rescue Plan funds,” Jennings said.

Those will go to the council at a later date, he said. But Jennings said he would also reach out to councilors individually to see if there are projects they desire. He said there would also be a future council workshop on the subject.

Additionally, Jennings and Mayor Kate Snyder said there will be opportunities for the public to weigh in on how to use the remaining federal funds, which the city has to allocate by Dec. 31, 2024, and fully spend by Dec. 31, 2026.  

Brendan O’Connell, the city’s finance director, said Portland received just over $46 million in ARPA funds. Cumberland County additionally received more than $57 million, which could benefit Portland if the county decides to work together on projects utilizing the funds.

“They are open to the idea of being able to invest in certain things with the city if we think that makes sense,” Jennings said.

He said one example of a potential partnership would be in addressing child-care needs for families.

“It’s all preliminary,” Jennings said, emphasizing that the Treasury guidance is necessary before anything gets to the council.

O’Connell said there are several categories that may qualify for municipal use of the funds. They include response to the public health emergency created by the pandemic, providing premium pay for employees performing essential work, and replacing revenue lost because of the pandemic, which is how Portland used $11 million in its first round of funding

Within those categories, O’Connell said, funds might be used to support businesses with grants; to speed the recovery of the tourism, travel, and hospitality sector, or to improve infrastructures like water, sewer, or broadband projects.

The federal government has advised against using these funds for recurring costs, such as salaries.

Portland faced that constraint when some councilors suggested the School Department reduce its $125.2 million budget for the 2022 fiscal year and use ARPA funding to offset the reduction.

Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said they didn’t want to do that because it was a recurring cost, and the City Council ultimately rejected the proposed reduction.