York County Commissioners have begun discussing how to put an estimated $40 million in American Rescue Plan funds to work to benefit the entire county, and touched upon transportation, mental health services and furthering opioid recovery efforts in recent conversations. The county partnered with York County Shelter Programs a few years ago to establish the Layman Way Recovery Center, shown here, on the grounds of York County Jail. Tammy Wells/Journal Tribune file photo

ALFRED — York County government is poised to receive an estimated $40 million from the American Rescue Plan, and while detailed rules on how the money can be used haven’t yet been spelled out, county officials have begun discussing the possibilities.

York County Commissioners spoke of increasing services associated with opioid recovery, mental health services, transportation and others — projects that could help citizens in all of York County’s 29 municipalities

Commissioners began the conversation on April 21; County Manager Greg Zinser asked for a “30,000 foot” discussion — keeping in mind, he said, all of the unknowns.

The county partnered some years ago with York County Shelter Programs to provide services to inmates at York County Jail determined to be good candidates for substance recovery at the 24-bed residential treatment program called Layman Way, in a former portable housing unit located on the jail grounds.

Zinser pointed out that there has a rise in overdose deaths in Maine and a lack of available treatment resources during the pandemic.

“Broadly defined mental health, substance abuse, and detoxification would all be in response to the public health emergency, so the question becomes where would we do it (and) how would we do it,” said Zinser. “One option — do we build a new big building to encompass this as a one stop shop — but I don’t know if the guidance will say (we) can do this. I think that’s a worthwhile cause to work with.”

The county will have until Dec. 31, 2024 to spend the money. It will be received in two allotments of roughly $20 million each, for a total of slightly more than $40 million.

In broad terms, the county can spend ARP dollars on responding to or mitigating the public health emergency or its negative economic impacts; providing government services to the extent of a reduction in revenue; making necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure; and providing a pay premium to county workers providing essential services during public health emergency.

“So, the county has the opportunity to go big with some sort of project, some kind of infrastructure, a once in a generation kind of change,” said County Commissioner Al Sicard. “A lot of the other counties seem to be going with broadband, but I think we have an opportunity with 75 acres over at the jail site, and Layman Way, to do something on a more permanent basis for them. That’s a project that changes things and serves the whole county, rather than piecemeal.”

Zinser said there has been talk of partnering with some municipalities on projects, but noted the guidance is not yet clear as to whether that can happen.

“This is a one-time thing,” said Commissioner Donna Ring. “When we start talking about building buildings … there’s a huge cost down the road once we complete whatever we decide which is best.”

“The taxpayers of the county will pick up the bill,” Ring said, noting ongoing operational costs. “This is something we’ll have to think long and hard on.”

“When we opened up Layman Way it was proven, when you help one person, it helps 10 other people, and in the long run saves money to the taxpayers,” said Commission Chair Richard Dutremble.

“I understand what you’re saying and I do believe that, but we have to make sure the towns are on board,” said Ring.

“If we were to go down that road, yes you’ll have operation costs, but you really will have to work with other organizations to staff it,” said Zinser, noting the county’s Layman Way partnership with York County Shelter Programs, which staffs the treatment facility.

Zinser said it takes about $950,000 a year to operate the Layman Way program but what isn’t seen is the services the shelter performs as part of the continuum of care that he said would add up to about $500,000.

“Transportation is another huge issue,” said Zinser, suggesting the county could take some of the ARP funds to create or bolster a nonprofit to create transportation assistance.

“I know transportation, for not just medical appointments, but in general, is a very large unmet need in the county, so there’s a real unmet opportunity where the county could partner with a nonprofit,” said Zinser. “Obviously you have to think about it, have a plan and make sure it’s sustainable for the long haul.”

“Transit is big in this bill as well,” said Sicard, suggesting there might be some sort of connection to existing transit systems in the Biddeford and Saco and Sanford areas.

“Transportation is a very reasonable and appropriate thing,” said Commissioner Robert Andrews. “People in the rural areas need to be able to get to jobs.”

One project the county will look at creating is a small wastewater treatment plant on the jail grounds – the county had explored joining a sewage district but that appeared not to be feasible. The jail currently operates on a septic system.

Broadband was also mentioned, though the commissioners noted the state was to receive $100 million to improve broadband services.

Commissioner Richard Clark said he wanted to see more guidance, but he thought some money should go toward opioid treatment and to transportation.

“If we’re going to try and help people stay in their homes as they age, we need to be able to help them with some things like transportation,” said Clark. “Some people just shouldn’t be driving at a certain age, and where most of us live, if you can’t drive, you’re pretty much done.”

The conversation how to spend the ARP funds is expected to continue at subsequent meetings.

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