The Bulloch County government and the city of Statesboro have received amounts totaling $4 million – including $1.7 million to the city and $2.3 million to the county – in Phase 1 of the state of Georgia’s three-phased administration of federal Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars.
Local officials remain fairly confident of receiving up to $4.7 million in Phase 2, including $2.68 million to the county and over $2.01 million to Statesboro, with additional, smaller amounts authorized for Brooklet, Portal and Register. Originally, the county government and the four towns were forecast to receive $13.9 million, out of $1.84 billion channeled from the federal treasury to local governments throughout Georgia.
But doubts are being raised about the third phase of the funding. Locally, this phase could mean a second $2.68 million payday for the county and another $2.01 million for Statesboro, and additional money for the three smaller towns as well. Unless something changes, Phase 2 and Phase 3 funds will be awarded entirely on a reimbursement basis, with a year-end deadline for spending.
So, although the city and county managers say they can justify the money in terms of the salaries of public safety personnel, costs incurred during shutdowns and purchases related to limiting the spread of COVID-19, spending the money and accounting for it before time runs out becomes a challenge.
At this point, the U.S. Treasury Department and the Georgia Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, or OPB, haven’t informed local governments of the deadlines to apply for the second and third phases.
“The system is not set up to push this much money out, this fast,” said Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch. “The jury is still out if Congress will do another state and local government stimulus.”
Coronavirus Relief Fund, or CRF, assistance to local governments is one aspect of the $2 trillion CARES Act, for “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security,” enacted in March by Congress and President Donald Trump. Couch referred to an essay in the Regulatory Review, at www.theregreview.org, which argues that delays in getting the money to local governments are not rooted in the CARES Act itself, but in a pre-existing, complex system meant to ensure accountability for federal aid to local, state and tribal governments.
“We have not heard about Phase II or III, and time is of the essence,” Couch said in an email Tuesday. “No one in local government is optimistic about getting Phase III funds. As slow as the state has been, it would be hard to expend it by December 30.”
That date, one day short of New Year’s Eve, was given by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget as the deadline for eligible costs to be incurred. CRF cash is awarded as reimbursement for necessary expenses incurred because of the COVID-19 public health emergency between March 1 and Dec. 30, 2020, states a summary on the Governor’s OPB website.
By population & expenses
Of the $4.12 billion in CRF money allocated to Georgia, almost $2.89 billion remained with the state government, according to a report Couch gave in July.
Meanwhile, $614 million, not included in the state allocation, went directly to Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties, since the CARES Act directly allocated money for counties and cities with more than 500,000 people.
The state then administered the $1.23 billion remaining from its share to smaller cities and counties. Although the funding was authorized to be divided on the basis of population, the local governments had to apply for and justify the grants as reimbursement for allowed pandemic-related expenses.
For Phase 1, Bulloch County and Statesboro did this entirely on the basis of public safety payroll costs. The county justified its share from pay and related costs for front-line Sheriff’s Office and Emergency Medical Service personnel, Couch said. Emergency Management Agency and Bulloch County Fire Department costs were not needed to reach the Phase 1 maximum, but including them remains a possibility for Phase 2, he said.
Meanwhile, the city planned to cite all Statesboro Police Department and Statesboro Fire Department wages from March 1 through July 31, and had more than enough to cover the amount allotted.
“Basically, public safety employees … anytime they go on a call, there is something to interact with someone that might have COVID-19,” Statesboro City Manager Charles Penny told City Council in early August.
In addition to “overtime for staff working in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the OPB summary lists “regular pay and benefits costs for employees who are substantially dedicated to COVID-19 mitigation” as eligible for reimbursement.
Other listed eligible costs include personal protective equipment, COVID testing, additional sanitization supplies or special cleanings, equipment for telework or online instruction as part of social distancing, and increased insurance or health care costs associated with pandemic response. Other than the public safety payroll, reportedly none of those costs had to be cited here for Phase I, but most of these categories were mentioned as possibilities for further phases.
After getting a partial advance of their expected shares in late July, the local governments submitted their complete Phase 1 applications before a Sept. 1 deadline. The county then received the balance of its $2.3 million Aug. 28, and the city got the rest of its $1.7 million last week. Those Phase 1 shares were 30% of the total available based on population. Phase 2 and Phase 3 each would be 35% of the total.
Help for citizens
Statesboro and Bulloch officials have proposed using some of the Phase II funding to help people in the community affected by COVID-19 and the resulting shutdown. In August, Penny and Statesboro’s mayor and council discussed budgeting $200,000 for a program of rental and mortgage assistance to help people stay in their homes, $200,000 to assist residents with utility bills and $200,000 to assist small businesses.
In addition to the $600,000 for those three programs, Penny has proposed using $250,000 from the Phase 2 CRF money to replace a $250,000 loan loss reserve originally created from the city’s water and sewer and natural gas revenues. That reserve provides the city’s guarantee of loans issued by Carver State Bank of Savannah to Statesboro small businesses struggling because of the pandemic.
City officials propose to contract with Georgia Southern University’s BIG, or Business Innovation Group, to handle the applications for business assistance and with the United Way of Southeast Georgia and Action Pact to administer housing and utilities assistance. The city previously raised more than $42,000 in donations for its Small Business Relief grants administered by BIG and Family Relief grants administered through the United Way.
The county also has a proposal to create a “housing security,” rent and mortgage assistance program in cooperation with Action Pact and a “food security” program, possibly working with the Statesboro Food Bank and local grocers.
Couch expressed “cautious optimism” Wednesday that local officials will hear something about the Phase 2 timeline next week.