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Council wants plan for how to spend $170M in federal aid for Covid-19 relief

Friday, May 8, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

Later this month City Council will get the first estimate of how the city can best use just over $170 million in federal funds dedicated to relief from the Covid-19 pandemic.

As part of the consent agenda Thursday, Council approved a resolution directing city staff to prepare an initial framework by May 21 for how to use the money provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, as well as reimbursements that will come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for expenses related to the pandemic.

The resolution was in some ways tied to another item passed on consent, which asks staff to develop a program for the city to assist local nonprofit organizations that have seen their donations and volunteer numbers drop because of the pandemic. That assistance would also come from the federal money.

At Tuesday’s work session, Ed Van Eenoo, deputy chief financial officer, and other Budget Department staffers outlined how the CARES Act was designed and what it allows local governments to do with the aid.

In addition to the $170.8 million, which must be used for emergency response, public health or economic recovery, the city has received nearly $70 million in additional federal funds, including $58.7 million for improvements and debt service for local airports.

Van Eenoo echoed the thoughts of some Council members who have said the city needs to be tactical in how to use the money and take advantage of the flexibility and redundancies built into the legislation.

“This is a very complicated funding situation, much more so than a typical disaster such as flood or hurricanes in the sense that there are so many funding sources available and so many of the uses for those sources overlap,” he said. “I can think of at least a dozen sources of funding that are available to the city for the purchase of personal protective equipment, so maximizing our use of these funds will take a lot of thoughtfulness and strategic thinking.”

Staff and Council members repeated during more than an hour of discussion that public safety and caring for medically vulnerable residents will be the city’s primary goal, along with assisting workers and small businesses that have been economically impacted by the closure of most storefronts since mid-March.

Budget staff affirmed Mayor Steve Adler after he said his reading of the CARES Act guidelines could allow the city to fund some core city services like public safety largely with federal money, as a way to make up for anticipated losses in city revenue because of lowered sales tax receipts.

“It reads to me like really broadly and almost looks like if we put the money toward public safety salaries, which exceed the total value of our coronavirus funding, that we might just be freeing up other dollars that we can spend for other things,” he said. “That would certainly be reasonable and appropriate, given the impact on revenues that cities are suffering, since so much of the budgets of major cities go toward public safety.”

Council Member Kathie Tovo said acquiring property to be used for stable housing for the city’s homeless population could be another possible use of CARES Act funds, since services for the homeless are spelled out as a suggested use.

Budget staff said as of early this week the city had spent $22 million on programs related to pandemic relief, with that amount expected to rise by the time the framework is complete.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who helped sponsor the resolution, said she expects staff to present a full picture of current spending related to the pandemic as well as general dollar amounts for uses broken up into the three main “buckets” of allowable use.

“We know there have to be contingencies and we know we don’t have all the dollar amounts yet, but we are already getting started on quite a few things. Many of our colleagues have been putting forward resolutions for different very important needs, and we’ve passed some of them and will pass more. My thought is what will come back to us on the 21st will reflect everything we’ve passed so far in terms of buckets of funding, that it would include the whole universe of funds that are available, and will give us an idea of dollars by bucket.”

U.S. Army National Guard photo by Charles E. Spirtos.

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