Skowhegan officials finalize ways to spend federal COVID-19 relief aid

SKOWHEGAN — City officials are asking department heads to narrow down their wish lists for how they plan to use federal COVID-19 relief.

The Council of Selectmen and department heads met Tuesday night for a workshop to discuss how the city can spend more than $870,000 that the city will receive over two years as part of the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

Selectmen had lengthy discussions about bonuses and the purchase of a generator for the Skowhegan Community Center, but no decisions had been made by the end of the meeting.

Selectmen support the provision of a new generator for the community center, but request that the price for a new unit be presented at the next workshop.

“I think that should be one of our top priorities, they should have one and they should have a nice one, not just to get you around,” said selector Harold Bigelow.

At an initial workshop last month, Police Chief David Bucknam suggested using some of the COVID-19 relief money to give each of his officers a $10,000 bonus, paid in two installments over a two-year period. The city’s fire chief said at the time that he supported the idea of ​​providing bonuses to those who lived through the pandemic, but also suggested investing in employee retention.

Selector Paul York kicked off Tuesday’s discussion, suggesting bonuses be given across the board, not just one department. But Bigelow pushed this back, calling it “disrespect” to police officers.

“Certainly in the last two years they want to punish the police,” said Bigelow. “The media has no respect for law enforcement, if you control the media, you control the people.”

Bigelow said the city’s police and firefighters earn more bonuses than other council workers, comparing officers’ work to that of “sitting in an office, wearing a mask with plastic in front of you, six feet apart.”

Other selectors disagreed with Bigelow, arguing that because the money is intended to provide COVID-19 relief, more people than just the police and firefighters were affected.

“In my opinion, we should spend it on those who worked during the pandemic, not on the danger (they experience at work) because we were all affected by it,” said roster chairman Todd Smith.

The same group met in October and discussed the following departmental funding plans:

• Police station: $190,000 to provide the $10,000 bonus for each officer.

• Economic and Community Development: $400,000 for the Run of River Whitewater Recreational Park, $100,000 for low-interest business loans to help businesses affected by COVID-19, a $100,000 grant/loan to homeowners to upgrade ovens to help those affected by COVID-19, and $60,000 for broadband to comply with the Somerset County Broadband Plan.

• Pollution Control: An unspecified amount to cover ‘sewer renovation and replacement’.

• Solid waste and recycling: $60,000 for a roof on the recycling building, $50,000 for an addition to the recycling building, and $40,000 for compactors.

• Parks and recreation: $150,000 for the Ballfield Compound, $75,000 for a Carl Wright Baseball Field infield renovation, $40,000 for lost income, $25,000 for the community center generator, and $20,000 for the elevator repairs at the community center.

• Opera House Committee: $100,000 for the renovation of the opera house.

So far, the city has received the first tranche of federal money, with the second tranche expected in 2022. Federal rules require the money to be spent by the end of 2026.

The money from the American Rescue Plan Act can be used in four different areas: in response to COVID-19 and its negative economic impact, to pay premiums to eligible employees responding to the public health emergency, to ensure financing for essential government services, and for investments in water, sanitation and broadband infrastructure.

Selectmen have scheduled a third workshop to discuss federal money for Jan. 25 at 4:30 p.m.

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