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Maine could benefit from a potentially rich trove of unused federal funds that have not yet factored into state discussions on rebuilding an economy hammered by the coronavirus.
The economic recovery committee convened by Gov. Janet Mills is set to submit its first report on July 15 asking the Democratic governor to dole out most of the $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act pandemic stimulus money the state has already received, though the panel has said the sum does not come close to matching the need.
The untapped money sources were identified in a draft report that the Federal Emergency Management Agency submitted to the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development and the Maine Emergency Management Agency last week.
FEMA collaborated with university researchers to collect information on Maine’s top needs to build a sustainable economy, including helping fisheries and building out broadband infrastructure. It then matched those needs with the myriad federal agencies with available funding.
State agencies are currently reviewing the recommendations. It will be up to the state to apply for any of the recommended aid, which would come from funds not yet used from the $2.1 trillion CARES Act, money that the 108 federal agencies have in their own budgets and philanthropic funding, according to a FEMA spokesperson.
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FEMA would not directly dole out the funding, but would match state needs with relevant federal agencies. The effort is part of FEMA’s National Disaster Recovery Framework, which kicked in after President Donald Trump in April declared a disaster in all 50 states because of the pandemic.
“The federal government hasn’t made it easy — though it’s tried — to access these grants and programs,” said Stephen Flynn, founding director of Northeastern University’s Global Resilience Institute, which was one of the institutions that collected data on what states need.
Flynn said it would be difficult to add up the funds that potentially could be available, but said “the needs assessment has amply demonstrated that the amount of federal assistance to address urgent needs is far greater than what has been available to date through the CARES Act.” A Maine tourism group has asked the governor for $800 million of the current $1.25 billion just to help businesses make it through the winter.
FEMA hired the researchers to interview public, private, nonprofit and community leaders in three communities in each New England state, with more than 100 interviews held in Portland, Belfast and Millinocket.
Steve Ryan, executive director of the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce, said he and the researchers talked about the need for long-term investments in Waldo County such as in high-speed internet and e-commerce platforms for companies that weren’t prepared to become online businesses before the pandemic.
Slow rural internet “hampered our ability to respond to the virus,” he said. The researchers also were concerned about the effects of a second wave of the virus, he said.
Katahdin Chamber of Commerce Director Peter Jamieson said he talked to the researchers about the ongoing effects of the lack of travel and tourism on that region’s economy. The researchers held a Zoom call with him, the town manager, the police chief and two tourism business owners in June.
FEMA was reacting quickly to problems that were identified, Flynn said. When researchers reported that fisheries needed dire help, FEMA suggested a group of federal agencies that could help and how, including having the U.S. Department of Agriculture treat fish farms the same as agricultural farms in terms of granting aid.
Maine’s agencies are reviewing the report now. Since New England was the first of FEMA’s 10 regions to have a needs assessment done, it has a jump on the rest of the country.
“The state is well positioned to make its case to get some of those additional resources it needs,” he said.