CARES fund expenditures set to to begin soon, commission clears all requests for funds
Editor’s note: This story includes reporting by Madison McVan and Claire Colby with Missouri Information Corps, a project of the Missouri University School of Journalism.
At its regular Monday meeting, the Ozark County Commission reviewed the requests it had received from school, government and community groups for expenditures to be made from the $1,076,293 the county has received in federal funds distributed through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was passed by Congress on March 27. The money is part of the $2.38 billion Missouri received through the CARES program.
Presiding Commissioner John Turner told the Times after the meeting that all five Ozark County school districts and several government agencies had provided estimates for how they hope to spend the money. As examples, Turner said the Ozark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office hopes to purchase computer equipment so that defendants can make court appearances via the internet rather than being transported to the courthouse in person. The Ozark County Collector’s Office has asked for money to purchase a system to allow residents to pay their taxes via the internet rather than coming into the office or mailing a check. The Ozark County Sheriff’s Department has asked for money to purchase personal protection equipment and sanitizing agents. Anticipating the time when a vaccine is available sometime in the future, the Ozark County Health Department hopes to purchase medical equipment and supplies for administering the vaccine.
Turner said the procedure will be that these groups and offices will complete a form, agreeing to repay any money that might not be approved by the CARES fund overseers. Then the school and government groups will make the purchases described and turn in receipts to the commission for reimbursement.
Grants will be made to the county’s volunteer fire departments for personal protective equipment and sanitizing agents. “We’ll have them sign something that says this will be spent on COVID-related items and not general expenses, but they won’t have to repay it if it’s disallowed, because they don’t have any money anyway, especially since they haven’t been able to do their usual fundraisers,” Turner said.
At the end of the year, the county must account for all expenditures and return any unused funds to the U.S. Treasury.
Concerns continue about using CARES funds
One of the concerns about distributing the funds is the lack of clear guidance from the federal government about what will and will not be approved. The rules governing how the money can be spent have changed since the CARES Act passed, and both state and local officials, including the Ozark County Commissioners, say a lack of clear guidance has complicated the process of using the funds.
According to the language in the CARES Act, money from the fund can only be used for “necessary expenditures incurred due to the COVID-19 public health emergency.”
“There was nothing for us as far as guidelines,” a Stoddard County commissioner told reporters with the Missouri Information Corps. “(The federal guidance) had the one little sentence that you could do small business grants, and there was not any additional information available.”
Missouri Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick said the state is also being cautious when it comes to advising local governments. “We try to be very careful about giving very specific answers to difficult questions that are in a gray area,” he said, adding that the state government is forwarding questions to the U.S. Treasury.
“We’re not the people at the end of the day that are going to decide what is and what isn’t — or what was and what wasn’t — allowable,” Fitzpatrick said.
Ozark County Western Commissioner Greg Donley told the Information Corps reporters that a large part of the county’s CARES funds will be used to move county services online and purchase PPE for schools, the health department and first responders.
Any Coronavirus Relief Fund money not spent by the end of the year must be returned to the U.S. Treasury. And expenditures that are not approved must be repaid.
On May 4, the U.S. Treasury issued a four-page document with additional information about what is considered “necessary exidentures,” as well as a list of FAQs (frequently asked questions) for local governments to reference. The treasury released a longer, updated version on May 28.
Some of the information in the FAQs, however, seemed to contradict the original guidance, causing confusion. For example, the initial four-page guidance prohibited funds from going to payroll expenses for employees whose work wasn’t “substantially dedicated” to fighting the pandemic. But the follow-up FAQ said it was OK to spend the money on expenses like payroll for teachers who had to adapt curriculum to an online setting.
The shifting federal guidance is also making it hard for the state to determine exactly how its own portion of the CARES funds can be used.
“I think that the state is somewhat hesitant at this point to earmark a lot of the funding until further guidance is provided,” Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, told the reporters. “I think that at this point we are anticipating further guidance, which again will probably create additional confusion.”