Some governors around the country are beginning to give cities and towns a share of the federal money states have received to fight the coronavirus pandemic, and a group of Maine mayors is pressuring Gov. Janet Mills to do the same.

Maine received $1.25 billion from the federal government to help the state cover costs related to the virus, but the Mills administration has so far not sent any of those funds to municipalities.

Mills said Friday she is waiting for additional action from Congress and clearer guidance from the Trump administration before spending or distributing the money.

Earlier this month, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu announced that his administration would filter $40 million in federal funds to cities and towns in the Granite State. He said the money was meant to help cities and towns “bridge the gap between what towns have incurred and what FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) will ultimately cover.”

New Hampshire also will use some CARES Act federal funds to provide front-line public employees like police, firefighters and EMTs with a $300 weekly hazardous pay stipend until the end of June.

In late April, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced he would send $300 million of the funding his state received from the CARES Act to cities and towns.

The $2 trillion stimulus law included $150 billion to be distributed by state and tribal governments. The law also allowed counties and municipalities with more than 500,000 people to apply directly for federal funds and provided a base funding of $1.25 billion to rural states without counties or cities with 500,000 people or more.

On May 8, the Mayors’ Coalition, which includes mayors from 11 of Maine’s cities accounting for more than 275,000 of the state’s residents, sent a letter to Mills asking her to meet with them to describe her plans for reopening the state’s economy, as well as her plan for distributing the federal funds Maine has received.

Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque, a coalition member, said Mills hasn’t yet said how or if the state will share the federal funds it has received. Levesque pointed to guidance issued by the U.S. Treasury for the distribution of CARES Act funds to cities with fewer than 500,000.

Levesque said his city has spent more than $200,000 responding to the pandemic including an emergency meals program for low-income residents, mostly elderly and children, in its efforts help keep people home and reduce transmission of the virus. The city also created a $50,000 relief fund that provided small no-interest loans to city businesses to help them weather the economic slowdown.

Levesque said the city would like to expand those programs. But the city also has had to absorb other costs from personal protective equipment to additional fuel and vehicle expenses as city staff have stopped ride-sharing to promote physical distancing.

Levesque voiced frustration that the Mills’ administration has taken so long to determine the best way to share the federal funding with cities.

“The intent of these funds is to allow local governments to act aggressively within their communities addressing needs quickly, providing support when needed and ensure that money is well spent, as there is a very direct checks-and-balance system,” Levesque said. “No one knows their local needs better than local leaders that’s why you are seeing so many states prioritize release of at least a portion of these funds directly to towns and cities where they will do the most good in the quickest amount of time.”

He said Maine also should consider a program to bump the pay of public employees on the front lines.

“Our first responders have had to deal with mounting stress, increased protocols and significant difficulties in order to just  handle their primary responsibilities to our residents and businesses,” Levesque said.

Mills addressed concerns that the federal funds were not yet being shared with cities and towns during a news conference Friday on the state’s response to the pandemic.

She reiterated optimism that Congress would take some additional actions to provide more flexibility in the use of the money or increase direct funding to municipalities. But she said weekly calls with federal officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, left her with the understanding that the money could not be used for some of the purposes cities and towns want it for.

Mills said she wants additional assurances the federal government would not disqualify use of the funds if it the money was sent to municipalities now.

“I know some other states have done some different things,” Mills said. “But, I don’t dare use it – and we have not used any of it – until we get full guidance from the federal government. Right now, it’s very limited – what we are told is you can only use it for COVID-related expenditures and not for back filling anybody’s budget, whether it’s town, county or state or private subsidies.”

Mills said once the U.S. Senate takes action and she receives better guidance on use of the funds she will move forward first by working with lawmakers on the Legislature’s state budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

“Once we get that full guidance and once the  Senate acts, within the next two weeks, I believe, we will know a lot better what we can do with those funds and hopefully help out some business enterprises and some cities and towns in the coming weeks,” Mills said.

Democratic state Senate leaders on Friday also sent a letter to Congress asking for additional flexibility for the use of CARES Act funding, as well as for additional federal financial help for cities and towns.

“With approximately one in six Mainers employed by state and local government, the potential for a cascade of secondary negative effects is tremendous,” said the letter signed by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby, D-Lewiston; Assistant Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic and Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth.

The city of Portland, which has seen a sharp decrease in the revenues it collects as the economy contracts because of physical distancing and business closures, already has taken steps to protect the city’s finances, including furloughing some workers. Departments are continuing to cut expenses, including by extending furloughs, as the city’s revenues fall.

In mid-April, Portland, Westbrook and South Portland announced a series of temporary layoffs including 311 of Portland’s 1,400 workers. Most of those positions were on-call, per-diem, seasonal, temporary or event staff.

Portland’s City Manager Jon Jennings has previously echoed Mills’ concern that the CARES Act needs adjustments to make the funds more flexible. Jennings also has urged Congress to provide additional and direct funding to cities smaller than 500,000. The city’s finance director, Brendan O’Connell, said this week that city officials also are waiting to hear how the Mills administration intends to share CARES Act funds.

“Maine received $1.25 billion and municipalities in Maine don’t have complete details of if or how those funds will be used to provide relief at the local level,” O’Connell said in an email.

Other mayors, not in the coalition, such as Westbrook Mayor Michael Foley, said they too were trying to express their concerns that Mills’ administration was slow in determining how to share federal stimulus funds with cities.

“We are trying to get the attention of state officials to let them know what others across the nation are doing with this funding to assist their communities,” Foley said. “We are eager to get direction on funding so we can then come up with a plan to assist with items eligible under the CARES Act.”

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