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CT Faces Complicated Process To Cover Coronavirus Staggering Costs

CT Faces Complicated Process To Cover Coronavirus Staggering Costs

CT Post, May 28, 2020

By Brian Lockhart

Eighty billion dollars is an amount of money that is hard to imagine.

But that figure is what the Federal Emergency Management Agency said remains in a special fund for states and municipalities to help cover formally designated disaster costs. In Connecticut those have usually been blizzards and hurricanes.

Now the disaster is a worldwide pandemic and it has taken a staggering toll on public health, the economy, and state and municipal spending.

As elected leaders and health officials continue the work of controlling COVID-19 infections, state, city and town numbers-crunchers and grants writers have been cataloging receipts, compiling databases, and drafting justifications for FEMA and other federal reimbursements.

“The Coronavirus Relief Fund, FEMA reimbursement, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Relief Fund are the largest and can be used to help the boards of education and municipalities offset their direct COVID related expenses,” said Chris McClure with the state’s Office of Policy and Management, which plays a significant role in the aid distribution.  

Connecticut received $1.38 billion from the Coronavirus Relief Fund and $111 million is available for the schools.

For municipalities in Fairfield and New Haven counties — both virus hot spots — just figuring out how to apply for what monies has become an enormously complex task.

“They have different names and titles with different sets of rules,” said Milford Mayor Ben Blake.

“The federal government is still issuing guidance. ... It is hugely nuanced,” Blake said. “You just must do your best to match the grants, once they come out, with rules and formulas with what your expenditures are.”

For example, there are an additional $15.3 million worth of federal grants specifically “to help with housing, shelter and transition services for the impoverished, ill and recently released (from incarceration),” McClure said.  

Already cash-strapped local governments that in normal times relied heavily on property taxes and state and federal dollars, hope all the effort that goes into tracking and justifying health crisis spending will literally pay off.

“We’ve asked all of our departments to go back to the first moment that we believed that we were ... doing anything that was related to COVID,” Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim said. “We’ll put everything in.”

There were the immediate, urgent needs when the pandemic struck Connecticut in mid-March: Purchasing personal protective, or PPE, equipment such as masks and gloves, cleaners and sanitizers, and COVID tests to help keep residents and personnel healthy.

According to New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker’s office, the Elm City was expected to have spent nearly $216,500 on PPE by July.

And without a vaccine, such new investments will become continuing costs local budgets must absorb as stay-home policies aimed at reducing public interaction to slow the illness’ spread are slowly lifted and governments re-open for limited business.

“We have some looming challenges coming up and we’re going to need reimbursement for them,” said Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who estimated his city has already spent around $4 million between municipal operations and the Board of Education.

New Haven was estimating a $1.1 million budget hit for information technology, such as equipment for employees to work from home.   

Reactivation of town services back to top

And the re-activation of some municipal services and offices has necessitated other related public-health expenses, Milford’s Blake said. “(We) are retro-fitting our city buildings. We are adjusting some of our public sites, like putting sneeze guards up and getting separation in our bullpen office space that we have right now,” he said. “(And) we are going to look at installing touch-free entry. So, there are a host of infrastructure upgrades that we are hopeful that we will be reimbursed for.”

Similar upgrades will need to be made for school buildings to reopen in the fall. Meanwhile municipalities invested in computer equipment for students and teachers forced home by COVID so they could complete the 2019/20 academic year.

Norwalk, for example, invested $1.6 million in laptops and tablets with the idea that classrooms will not soon return to normal.

“We’re anticipating needing a more robust summer school and needing a different learning environment perhaps through all of next school year,” Tom Hamilton, chief financial officer for the Norwalk Public Schools, said in early May of the $1.6 million expenditure. “We expect social distancing may continue to be a requirement.”

The school closures also meant needier households were faced with having to purchase more food, even as parents may have been furloughed or laid-off because businesses were shuttered. So districts stepped up and invested in to-go meal programs, with costs ranging from an estimated $286,500 in New Haven to $101,000 in Guilford.

Blake said the Milford school system currently is serving more than 9,000 meals per week to students but he does not know yet whether federal funds will cover it over the summer. “The federal government is still issuing guidance for a lot of grants that city and towns may be eligible for,” Blake said.

Guilford has spent a total of about $180,000 on purchases related to COVID-19, First Selectman Matthew Hoey said.

Boughton noted that Danbury also spent money to temporarily house about 60 homeless individuals at the Super 8 Motel when shelters closed over fears of spreading the coronavirus within their confined living quarters.

“We are spending money only on the items needed,” Josh Morgan, Norwalk’s communications manager and grants coordinator, said. “There is a strict process in place for departments to receive necessary approval before ordering any supplies.” Some expenses have come under fire as local officials repeat their “the federal government will cover it” mantra.

In Bridgeport, for example, the Ganim administration launched a slick public awareness effort — the most professional of any of Connecticut’s big cities — involving a well-produced daily Facebook briefing along with commercials starring Ganim encouraging residents to take the necessary health precautions or thanked healthcare and other front line workers.

Bridgeport City Council members have recently argued that whatever those advertisements cost — the city has not released a figure — those funds would be better spent on providing citizens personal protective gear, food and other necessities.

“Just communicating is an essential element” of COVID response, Ganim argued. Gov. Ned Lamont also found himself defending the state’s spending $2 million on consultant to assist in re-opening Connecticut.

“It is ... disappointing that the governor brushed off the $2 million cost by saying the federal government is paying for it anyway,” Joe DeLong, head of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, wrote in an opinion piece published by Hearst Media. “The $2 million could have gone to help with the struggles our towns and nonprofit service providers are enduring through this pandemic.”

In the case of FEMA, which covers 75 percent of approved disaster expenses, that agency has the ability to reject requests that do not meet its criteria. A FEMA spokesman said applicants have “two opportunities to request FEMA reconsider a determination.”

Boughton was confident Danbury will “be reimbursed for a significant amount” of pandemic-related expenses. But, he cautioned, how long that process will take “is another story.” FEMA said 14 days is the average time between when a request is received and the money “obligated.” Boughton said in the past the wait for FEMA disaster dollars could potentially even be a few years. However, Boughton added, auditors who regularly comb through municipal budgets “will accept a written authorization from the government saying it promises to reimburse.”

DeLong in his opinion piece to Hearst also complained about the time it has taken the Lamont administration to figure out how to distribute the $1.38 billion from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund: “The state needs to share federal pandemic-related aid with local governments — now.”

McClure in response told Hearst the Lamont administration is “working diligently with our federal partners and local governments to ensure we do this correctly the first time to avoid any problems or possible ‘claw backs’ from the federal government.” He said since April the state Office of Policy and Management has been in constant communication” with cities and towns about COVID-related expenses and a reimbursement program should be announced “in the coming weeks. “It is hugely nuanced,” Blake said. “You just must do your best to match the grants, once they come out, with rules and formulas with what your expenditures are.”

With the coronavirus a threat for the foreseeable future, the cycle of local spending-and-seeking-federal relief will continue for some time, officials said. The Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives is pushing additional legislation — the HEROES Act — that would send around $7 billion more to Connecticut.

“The duration and magnitude of this pandemic will likely generate expenses and revenue losses well beyond December 30, 2020,” McClure said.

“We are deeply appreciative of the significant federal support ... so far and would support additional funding to the states and municipalities,” he said.