CARES Act funding depleted; state and local governments awaiting guidance on new federal COVID funds

HELENA — The COVID-19 pandemic response has been a costly endeavor at all levels of government.

Lewis and Clark Public Health (LCPH) alone has already spent more than $1 million responding to the public health crisis. To put that into perspective, LCPH spent a total of $781,689 during their entire 2019 fiscal year.

“That’s primarily because we’ve had to hire so many extra people to help do this work,” Lewis and Clark County Health Officer Drenda Niemann. “We’ve had to hire 70 contact tracers for example, more people to help with code enforcement and support staff to answer phone calls.”

Niemann says they don’t anticipate those additional costs to go down anytime soon and may need to increase their employee numbers as vaccination efforts continue to increase in the coming months.

The last time LCPH can remember having to hire additional people was during the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2010 to help with vaccination efforts. However those additional workers don’t come close to what the COVID-19 pandemic has required.

“It was such a short amount of time when we needed to pull people on temporarily, then it’s not such a huge burden to the budget,” explained Niemann. “COVID has just dragged on for months and months and months which means the expenses just continue to build up.”

Niemann says thankfully the county hasn’t had to shoulder the full $1 million burden on their own. LCPH directly received $440,000 from CARES Act dollars distributed by the state.

“We were so thankful to receive those funds to help cover expenses,” said Niemann.

Niemann says it would have been an immense financial burden on the county going forward without state and federal support.

However, all $1.25 billion of CARES Act funding allocated to Montana have been spent. The federal government did extend the time in which those funds could be spent through the end of 2021 but it was after states believing for months each cent had to be spent by the end of 2020 or it would revert back to the federal government.

The good news is Congress passed additional legislation at the end of December to continue to assist state and local governments respond to the pandemic.

The exact amount of money that will be allocated to Montana from the recent stimulus legislation has not been officially communicated to the state. Governor Gianforte’s administration is estimating potentially somewhere between $760 and $800 million that could be used for a number of COVID response and relief efforts.

Sen. Tester and Sen. Daines announced Friday over $71 million has been dedicated to Montana for future COVID testing, monitoring and vaccination efforts.

“The COVID funds that were appropriated by Congress most recently are much more narrowly tailored than CARES Act funds. We are still awaiting guidance from Washington to have a better understanding of what the parameters are of those buckets of funds,” said State Budget Director Kurt Alme.

The Governor’s Office said it took the state around two months to receive guidance for the CARES Act funding.

The State has yet to need to cover any previously covered CARES Act covered programs with state dollars.

“We hope that there’s going to be sufficient federal funding meet all of our ongoing COVID needs,” said Alme.

The Gianforte administration is actively looking at whether there are any COVID response or relief areas that may no longer be covered or will need additional funding support.

Local governments are also incurring costs while they wait for funding guidance to be passed down the chain.

State statues also prevent counties from saving over a certain amount to ensure that tax dollars are being used to benefit citizens. Lewis and Clark County operates with about a 90 day cash reserve, but that’s not nearly enough to meet the needs of COVID and the other duties and obligations of the county.

CARES Act funding had retroactive components to cover costs occurred before the legislation was enacted. Local governments are putting their faith in similar provision being included in the new stimulus funding.

“All I know is our work doesn’t stop because the money is not there,” said Niemann. “We are obligated, we have a responsibility to this county and the people of this county. We can’t stop working because the funds aren’t there.”

Even with more funds coming to support COVID efforts, the pandemic will have a lasting impact. Niemann said many intended programs and projects that was on their strategic plan that probably won’t materialize for years now as the county works to recuperate costs associated with a worldwide pandemic.