February 23, 2024
Patience is all we've had in Bangor, Maine about ARPA

Note: This is an e-mail response I wrote on December 7, 2022 to Bangor City Council Chairman Rick Fournier. His original message from December 6, 2022 is posted below my response.

Rick,

My questions have been based on where we stand in 2022, and your answer to me would have been an appropriate response back in 2021. You’ve asked for patience. After 19 months the Council still hasn’t figured out a single project with a pretty substantial problem staring it right in the face. Patience is all we’ve had up to this point. 

Nobody expected the ARPA funding to be allocated overnight. Even today nobody expects every single penny to be allocated yet. The deadline for that is still two years away. But the assumption was that the Council had been meeting regularly to discuss potential projects so that we’d reach a point that by the end of Q1 2022, or maybe Q2 we’d have one, maybe two projects to get the ball rolling on digging ourselves out of this human tragedy that has unfolded here in Bangor. Fast forward to May 2022, a year after the city found out how much of an ARPA award it could expect, it finally asks the residents in an official capacity what they thought the money should be used for. That was a little bit of a shocker that nothing substantial had been in the works up to that point.  But still, I had patience when others were losing theirs. 

But then, radio silence until November 1, 2022. Council has its FIRST official ARPA meeting to discuss allocation of funds. We learned that the Council was only just then spit-balling ideas onto a whiteboard on how to use the funding.

And all of that input from Bangor residents collected in May 2022? It was dismissed out-of-hand by two councilors. One saying the number of respondents was statistically insignificant vs the number of registered Bangor voters and the data should not be considered. Another saying that “special interests” were sending multiple people and stacking the deck.  What does that make me?  0.00006% of the electorate in Bangor and apparently in the pocket of “Big Homelessness” because I want to see my fellow Bangoreans lifted out of it, I guess.

Then we learned in a City Council Workshop last week from the City Manager that Bangor was earning a “fabulous” interest rate but couldn’t articulate the amount earned to date. The public also learned about the Treasury rule that says all interest earned from ARPA funds was not subject to any ARPA restrictions.  This comes on the heels of learning that Council was unaware that two ARPA reporting deadlines were missed, which also comes on the back of last year’s city audit reporting earlier late reporting for federal COVID funds. 

In that same meeting Dan Tremble announced the surprise decision that $2 million will be allocated for broadband. I wish I could have seen the conversation where Council was able to address the least of our problems while ignoring our biggest. So much for transparency.  But credit where credit is due: at least it’s something in a sea of nothing.

Based on everything said and (not) done so far:

  • Program compliance was not a priority for the City.
  • The Council cannot articulate the process it purports to be following.  (If it exists and is written, that should have gone up on Bangor’s ARPA page.)
  • The Council waited 18 months to hold its first meeting. (The next meeting hasn’t been posted to the city’s ARPA page as of this email.)
  • Per your email, meeting with Penobscot County was the first goal of the Council. A meeting that was first announced by Council during Public Comment at the Council Meeting on October 12, 2022 took an additional 7 weeks to materialize. 
  • The city of Bangor continues to accrue interest income on the ARPA funds, but yet hasn’t articulated to the public how much has been earned to date. It purposefully avoided identifying the income as interest as it does with other funds in the FY 2021 Annual Comprehensive Financial Report. In addition, the city did not perform a year end reconciliation on the ARPA account per RKO’s Letter to Management.

Several pictures can be painted from this, none of which are flattering.

A) The City Council has been winging this in the hopes that it will all come together before December 31, 2024.

B) The City Council has a plan, and it involves the City’s time-honored tradition of kicking the can down the road on homelessness with big talk but little funding. Waiting until closer to the allocation deadline eliminates the amount of backlash since there won’t be enough time to change course.

C) The City Council has been convinced that holding on to the ARPA funds as long as it can to generate as much interest as possible is the smart play.  By taking the page right out of the GFAO playbook and using their memo as the council’s memo, (i.e. “Take Time and Consideration”) it has made for great cover when questioned about the heel dragging. “We’re following a process.” For a city hungry for additional revenue to deal with non-ARPA eligible uses, nobody wanted to look this gift horse in the mouth. You’ve given the city nothing but your say-so that this is not the case.

Or could it be:

D) This ARPA award is bigger than anything the City of Bangor and its Council has ever done. It bit off more than it can chew and is paralyzed by it. Nobody at City Hall wants to admit it, and Council believes that with the allocation deadline so far away it will eventually just “figure it out”. 

When you are telling me, and others, to be patient, you are gaslighting us. We’ve been nothing but patient, and where did that get us? A year and a half of NOTHING.  The U.S. Treasury tasked local governments with balancing short- and long-term issues that arose during or were exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. This Council has done neither to date.

Yes, many organizations in the Bangor area are working to tackle homelessness. As I mentioned in my previous email, it is those organizations that are holding the line now and keeping this crisis from becoming worse. But those organizations are asking for help. Specifically, funding. And those calls are either ignored or rebuffed. “We’re following a process” they’ve been told.  Had the City Council held its first meeting in November 2021, this winter might be looking dramatically different to those currently enduring the worsening elements. 

If you want continued patience, give us something to go on. No more guessing games. Update the ARPA page with a full schedule of meetings for the year. Update it with all of the goals, including the one you shared with me about coordinating with the County. Articulate how Mr. Tremble’s $2 million for Broadband announcement came about.  Post updated financials. Articulate the Council’s policy for use of the interest money. Have that conversation about hiring an ARPA coordinator. 

I understand fully that good planning takes time. Look at the care and consideration taken for the report the Housing Work Group did in 2018/2019. Still, they got an interim report out in 4 months. They could have repeated that process FOUR times in the amount of time it took City Council to have a single meeting about ARPA.  City Council has proven this ARPA work belongs in the hands of a motivated and knowledgeable committee. One that is driven to collect the data and present it in an actionable package. Appoint a committee that can focus on vetting project ideas and offer solid actionable advice to the City Council.  


To the rest of the Council reading this, I hope you will help push for more accountability, transparency, and reasonable progress this coming year.  We can’t afford another 19 months like the last. 


Respectfully,
Michael Beck

Email from Bangor City Council Chair Rick Fournier on December 6, 2022:

Good Afternoon Michael,

First and foremost thanks for reaching out.

Not avoiding your questions, but it does take a bit of time, to get the answers you want.

The City is not sitting on the ARPA funds to accumulate interest. It is my belief, we want to serve the citizens of Bangor with the best use of the funds that will help the most individuals. Our first goal was to collaborate with Penobscot County on how to possibly use the funds to help both Bangor and the county. We met last week and I am hopeful to announce something before the end of the year.    

The Council is fully aware that there is a housing issue within the City. Last year, it was agreed upon by the Council to focus on 4 issues, housing, homeless, economic development and ARPA (how best to spend it, while being transparent).

Thank you for forwarding the how other cities are using their funds. 

Please be patient, many organizations (including the City of Bangor) are working to make the homeless situation better. It will not happen overnight but together we will get this to a better place.

Again, I thank you for your persistence on raising these concerns. We are working on it. 

Thanks,

Rick Fournier
Chair
Bangor City Council