The Hancock County Courthouse in Ellsworth. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Maine counties have started getting installments of the $260 million they are due to receive in federal American Rescue Plan funds, which are meant to help state, county and municipal governments recover from pandemic-related losses and help spur an economic rebound.

But the counties, which typically oversee and fund fewer direct services than their municipal and state counterparts, have not yet decided how they will use the money. Some counties are anticipating almost as much as or more than they spend in a year in American Rescue Plan money.

Many counties are still sorting through federal rules that restrict how they can use the funds, and are waiting to see how other entities such as the state, towns and cities plan to use the separate pots of money that those governments are getting. In some counties, elected officials are planning to hold workshops and solicit feedback from the public on how the money should be spent.

The amounts counties are getting range from $3.2 million for Piscataquis County to $57.3 million for Cumberland County, the state’s least and most populous, respectively, according to the National Association of Counties. Other counties getting larger shares of American Rescue Plan funds include York with $40.3 million, Penobscot with $29.5 million, Kennebec with $23.7 million and Androscoggin with $21 million.

The state also is getting federal COVID-19 relief funds, and has identified broadband expansion as one way it intends to use the money. Home internet usage skyrocketed during the pandemic in Maine and elsewhere as many offices closed and had employees telecommute, and because many families either had to or chose to keep their children at home and take classes online.

Hancock County, which is slated to get $10.6 million, already has received about half that amount and has set it aside temporarily as it gathers more information about the relief program.

So far, the county has only reviewed the federal rules governing how they spend the money and hired a consultant to help with interpreting and complying with federal rules, and reporting spending to the federal government, said County Administrator Scott Adkins.

County governments in Maine typically do not offer as many public services as counties in some other states, or as many services as the state or municipalities do.

Maine counties fund and operate sheriff’s departments and jails, other services such as probate and deed registries, and also maintain courthouses and provide operational funding to district attorneys’ offices. Unlike the state and many municipalities, Maine counties typically do not fund or operate schools, fire departments, water or wastewater facilities, or — with the exception of more rural counties that include portions of the state’s Unorganized Territory — maintain local bridges or roads.

Penobscot County also has received the first half (roughly $15 million) of its American Rescue Plan funds and plans to send officials to a National Association of Counties conference next month in Maryland to learn more about how the funds can be used. In addition to recovering pandemic-related expenses, possible uses that have come up in discussion include supporting behavioral health programs aimed at cutting down on criminal behavior — and possibly reducing jail costs — and upgrading generators that provide electricity to the county’s emergency communications system when the power goes out.

Franklin, Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc, Somerset, Waldo and Washington counties all are projected to receive between $5 million and $10 million each. Aroostook and Oxford counties each are projected to get between $11 million and $13 million.

For some counties, the amounts they are getting are similar to or even greater than their entire annual budgets. Penobscot County’s annual budget for 2021 is $22.6 million, nearly $7 million less than its expected ARP payment, while Cumberland County’s 2020 budget of $59.6 million is only $2.3 million more than the amount it expects to get from the COVID relief program. Hancock County’s 2021 budget is $9 million, which is $1.6 million less than its expected American Rescue Plan amount.

BDN reporter Judy Harrison contributed to this story.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....