Southport’s Ham Meserve is used to big numbers. After all, he is a retired international banker, and big numbers are a way of life in that racket.
Since being elected as the only Republican Lincoln County commissioner, he has tried to provide needed services while keeping a keen eye on the bottom line.
Today, he and his fellow commissioners, Bill Blodgett and Mary Trescot, face the usual problems, like budgeting funds to keep Sheriff Todd Brackett’s squad cars on the road and figuring out how to keep the lights on at the courthouse.
As we (hopefully) move through the year-long nightmare called a pandemic and try to get back to something someone dubbed normality, the commissioners are confronted with another chore. This one has a multi-million dollar price tag.
In the back halls of Lincoln County Courthouse, they are trying to figure out what to do with millions of dollars from away. They expect to get maybe as much as $6.7 million. It is a rare event. Officials will soon have a bucket of new money that didn’t come from local taxpayers. The American Recovery Plan, which President Joe Biden and Democrats pushed through Congress without help from the Republicans, is scheduled to bring about $1 billion or more to Maine. Bangor Daily News estimated that Maine’s largest cities will get $118 million, with metropolitan Portland getting the most at $48 million, followed by Lewiston at $22.8 million, Bangor at $21.1 million, Auburn at $14.2 million and Biddeford at $11.7 million. Other cities and towns will share $115 million.
Now, before you ask, the answer is no. Meserve says the rules state you can’t use the windfall to lower our local taxes. But you can use it for new stuff. And, as you might expect, everyone, especially the 18 Lincoln County towns, is licking their chops. Everyone wants a piece of the action. “It is a nice problem to have. It may take a while to figure it out. We have got to be responsible and get the best bang for the buck,” said Meserve.
Somerville, population 548, has already told the commissioners they would just love to get $350,000. They are not alone. Southport, population 606, wants $50,000.
For the last several years, Southport residents have tried to convince the big internet service providers to upgrade service to the island. But the big boys don’t seem interested in spending big bucks to service a few homes tucked into the woods. As internet service has grown into a must-have need, town officials have studied the idea of installing a community-owned network to provide better, faster internet services to residents.
On the May 7 town warrant, they have asked taxpayers to approve a $2.4 million bond issue to pay for this service. Meserve says funding-enhanced broadband service is one of the top issues being considered for all the experiences of the last year, when many folks, including school kids, used the internet to work from home, pointed out the need for upgraded services.
The local real estate market has been red hot as new folks have decided to move their families away from the cities. “They have had it with the (Wall) Street and (they) like telecommuting,” he said. “We find service to bring stuff into our homes is adequate, but sending stuff out is not.”
Lincoln County planners recently updated the list of topics that need to be addressed in the coming years. Broadband is at the top of the list, Meserve said.
Other needs include transportation, adequate housing, meeting environmental conditions, and economic stability. One topic Meserve mentioned is a bit confusing on its face. It is called intergenerational community development. He explained that means providing support for older people so they can fully participate in the community.
That may mean providing sidewalks so older people and the rest of us can walk to the store without tip-toeing beside the road. He said projects might mean bike paths, although it has been a while since many of us have tried to ride a bike. I’ll bet I can still do it, but maybe, maybe …
It is rare for local officials to have a new big bucket of money to play with. There are always worthy projects under consideration, but most of them are shelved as officials try to keep local taxes low. Now, as Meserve put it, “they are licking their chops” at the prospect of getting their hands on lots of new money from away.
“It is a different set of circumstances,” he said.