Daines seeks COVID-19 federal aid commitment to counties

After hearing from county governments concerned about COVID-19 costs, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines is asking that 45% of federal aid to states automatically go to local governments.

There have been problems for the counties with rising health department costs and revenue lost to canceled events, said Joe Briggs, Cascade County commissioner and board member of the National Association of Counties. States have been receiving federal aid, but counties are still waiting for their share.

“In almost all jurisdictions, it’s the cities and the counties that operate the health departments, which is where the huge hit expenditures is required for the direct fighting of the COVID,” Briggs told Lee Montana Newspapers on Wednesday. “It’s overtime. It’s contact tracing to track down who people have had interface with, with an infectious disease. It’s the expenses for the personal protective equipment necessary for the first responders, on and on and on. Those are not costs that are being borne by the state.”

Briggs said the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, a $2 trillion bill that delivered $1.2 billion to Montana’s state government, was a well-meaning bill, but had no language specifying how local governments would share in that aid or how much they might receive. The Daines bill would require the state to pass 45% of the money to local governments without requiring those counties to ask Montana to share CARES Act funds. 

Local governments are seeking compensation. The Bozeman Chronicle reports Bozeman is asking for $500,000 in COVID-19 expenses. Bozeman is the county seat of Gallatin County, the Montana community that has seen the most COVID-19 cases so far. Ravalli County is hoping for $500,000 in CARES Act money, as well.

“With public health and emergency services supported by local governments, it’s important that they have the resources needed to continue to combat the coronavirus,” Daines said in a press release.

Briggs said he expects local governments to receive CARES Act money from the state, but they’ve had to wait.

“The governor chose to roll out the commercial stuff first. And he may have a plan for how money gets to cities and counties here in Montana, but at this point that has not been released,” Briggs said. “We are expending money. Our revenues have been decimated, because in our case at Montana Expo Park, we’ve had to cancel all the rental arrangements we had from when this started in March through now. We just had to cancel state fair.”

Gov. Steve Bullock is working with the Montana Association of Counties now to determine how local governments can apply to the state for CARES Act money to cover COVID-19 expenses. Lost revenue isn’t covered by CARES Act aid.

“We are developing a system now in conjunction with MACo and the League of Cities and Towns for local governments to submit those expenses for reimbursement. The initial round should be available early next month to cover expenses incurred this fiscal year,” said Marissa Perry, the governor’s communications director.

Yellowstone County has faced similar losses at the MetraPark. The Professional Bull Riders in March canceled its Billings event, which is a significant revenue source for the county.

This week, Yellowstone County health officials nixed plans for a gun show at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark planned for late May over concerns about how the event would comply with distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The move has left gun show organizers and Metra officials at odds with County Health Officer John Felton over the decision, especially with plans to hold large-gathering high school graduations already on the books for May 24.

Yellowstone County still plans to stage Montana Fair in August.