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City tracks $450M cost of Covid

Tuesday, November 3, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

About eight months in, the Covid-19 pandemic has cost the city $449.9 million.

The total, according to an Oct. 30 memo from Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo, represents the initial $271.6 spending framework approved by City Council in May and “five months of actual spending, additional Council direction, refined federal guidance, new grant awards, and potential vaccination costs.”

A breakdown of the distribution of and sources for the spending is now available on a new city dashboard that is designed to track money spent battling the pandemic. The dashboard shows that the city currently has 21 Covid-related programs underway, with $237.9 million committed and $212 million remaining.

The money comes from a mix of federal relief grants and city money, including $170.8 million from the federal coronavirus relief fund, $49.9 million from General Fund reserves and $76.3 million from city operating funds.

More than $79.8 million in grant funding has been added to the original spending framework since May, including a $58.7 million federal grant awarded to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to help mitigate the effect of the dramatic drop in air travel this year. Grants also came to the city from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to assist people experiencing homelessness and through the Assistance to Firefighters Grant, Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant and Community Services Block Grants.

In terms of spending, estimates for the amount for testing centers and vaccinations has expanded from the original May estimate of $4.5 million – which was solely for testing kits – to $50.6 million. From the memo: “As the magnitude of the testing activities became more apparent, Austin Public Health recognized the need to add additional testing sites and to hire a consultant to manage operations resulting in a revised estimate of $26 million. In addition, $20.1 million has been added to the estimate to account for the longer-term effort of providing and distributing vaccinations.”

That figure, according to the memo, is likely to grow: “$20.1 million in costs for ongoing response efforts, including testing sites and ultimately vaccination activity, have been incorporated into the framework. However, Austin Public Health projects they may need a total of $42 million and at this time, there is no expectation of FEMA assistance beyond January 21, 2021.”

Likewise, care and quarantine facility costs have risen from the original $14.5 million estimate to $31.9 million. Costs tallied now include $15 million for the SAVES initiative, $1.5 million for emergency food access, $2.3 million for the business preservation fund, and $5.6 million for economic injury “bridge” loans, all of which were approved by City Council.

According to Van Eenoo, tracking down an exact figure for money spent has not been easy. That’s reflected in the $7.7 million listed as “uncategorized expenses” on the dashboard.

“As staff worked through the manual effort of assigning all the transactions related to addressing the pandemic – over 75,000 per month – they encountered challenges accounting for expenditures within the categories of initial framework,” wrote Van Eenoo. “First, some expenses were found to belong to more than one category. Second, the time required to track down each expense and determine its purpose was unsustainable, especially given the tremendous workload staff has been managing since the onset of the pandemic.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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