By Adam Pagnucco.
Here are two things that almost everyone inside and outside of county government will agree on.
- The needs of residents and businesses for financial assistance to deal with the COVID crisis are immense.
- The $183 million in CARES Act grant money the county has been allocated by the federal government is helpful but is far from adequate to cover all the above needs.
With those two things said, representatives of the executive branch told the county council yesterday that they have not spent all the federal money appropriated by the council yet. And facing an end-of-year deadline to get the money out the door, there is now doubt as to whether the county will spend all of the federal money or forfeit some of it.
The council’s response to this was nothing short of nuclear.
The fissile material was prepared by council staff, whose memo to the council listed major appropriations of federal assistance and its actual expenditure by the executive branch. Six federal money appropriations mentioned in the memo and passed by the council months ago include:
Resolution 19-439: Emergency Assistance Relief Payment (EARP) Program
Adopted by council: 4/30/20
Funds appropriated by council: $5,000,000
Funds spent by executive branch: $0
Resolution 19-499: 3R Program (Reopen, Relaunch, Reimagine) – Economic Development
Adopted by council: 6/16/20
Funds appropriated by council: $500,000
Funds spent: $142,500 (Note: the county’s economic development corporation is responsible for spending this money.)
Resolution 19-506: Food Assistance/Security
Adopted by council: 6/23/20
Funds appropriated by council: $10,300,000
Funds spent by executive branch: $5,052,209
Resolution 19-523: Reopen Montgomery Initiative
Adopted by council: 7/7/20
Funds appropriated by council: $14,000,000
Funds spent by executive branch: $1,431,538
Resolution 19-535: Business Assistance for Medical and Dental Clinics
Adopted by council: 7/21/20
Funds appropriated by council: $3,000,000
Funds spent by executive branch: $0
Resolution 19-557: Rental Assistance and Eviction/Homelessness Prevention
Adopted by council: 7/28/20
Funds appropriated by council: $20,000,000
Funds spent by executive branch: $607,508
The above six appropriations total $52.8 million, of which the largest chunk ($20 million) is assistance to renters. Of that amount, the executive branch has spent $7,233,755. If the executive branch does not spend the remaining $45.6 million of federal money by December 31, it risks forfeiting the money.
That’s not all. Eight additional appropriations of federal money passed more recently by the council total $12.1 million, of which the executive branch has so far spent just $30,492. The two largest portions of this money are assistance to school age child care providers ($7.7 million) and assistance to distressed, affordable common ownership communities ($2 million). If this money is not spent by December 31, it might also be forfeited.
What’s the problem? First, the county just can’t spray checks around; it has to design the assistance programs, publicize them to potential recipients, process the applications and distribute the funds. Those things take staff and time. Second and more seriously, the county has had problems complying with FEMA paperwork requirements to get reimbursed. The process is nightmarish and time-consuming with FEMA changing the rules at least once (so far). County homeland security director Earl Stoddard told the council that the county had obtained just $20,000(!) in reimbursement from FEMA so far and that took more than two weeks and dozens of staff hours to process. Stoddard and Chief Administrative Officer Rich Madaleno made no defense of the feds and were clearly frustrated.
None of this mollified the council, who proceeded to nuke the executive branch from orbit. Here are just four quotes from MANY angry statements by council members.
Council Member Andrew Friedson
This is a really frustrating conversation and clearly there are a lot more questions than answers. Some of that is understandable when in the midst of a crisis and there are a lot more questions. We don’t know what the future will hold, we don’t know what this virus will do, we don’t know what the impact on our community will be, we can’t control what the federal government… and how they will respond. But the idea that our residents and our businesses are struggling more than they ever have and are more vulnerable than they’ve ever been, when the needs are as challenging as they currently are, with an economic crisis and a public health emergency, that our issue right now is not whether or not we will run out of money too quickly, but whether or not the clock will run out before these programs will have been able to help the businesses, help the residents, help the vulnerable members of our community who desperately need it. And I can’t tell you how frustrating that is for me. I believe it’s frustrating similarly for colleagues and I can’t imagine how frustrating that is for the 1.1 million residents who are desperately trying to get through the most challenging time in our lifetimes.
Council Member Nancy Navarro
For that list of special appropriations that we started, some of them, all the way back in April, the amount of money that has not been spent translates into residents not receiving that assistance. Residents who we interact with on a daily basis that I know I have said, “Oh no, we have this program, we have that program,” we all did, all these different places and interviews and social media, pushing all this out and I keep getting feedback that, “Well no, we have not really been able to access this and we have not received that,” thinking OK, we’ll keep working on it. So number one, I’m just super disappointed that so many of these amounts, these special appropriations, these funds that are specifically to address the needs of some of the most vulnerable people in the county, and when I see how little has been spent, I just don’t even know what to say…
There is no excuse for the fact that so much of this money has not been out there.
Council Member Gabe Albornoz
I’m not confident at all that a month from now, when we have another update, that things will be significantly improved from where we are right now. And we’re setting everybody up for failure right now. And it’s not fair. It’s not fair to the county employees who are working diligently and around the clock to address these issues. We need stronger strategic leadership to be able to provide them with the support that they need to be able to get their jobs done. And I’m not seeing that and I’m not hearing that right now.
Council Member Will Jawando
The thing that is totally unacceptable to me is that we can’t get money out of the door that we’ve appropriated for rent and for food and for emergency assistance. So we just have to do better on that.
Council Members also called out County Executive Marc Elrich directly.
I apologize to you, Dr. Stoddard, because this is not directed at you, because you’re not the executive. And I will say, the executive should be here talking to us about what is happening because this is really, really critical.
Council Member Tom Hucker
[To Madaleno] Do you know where the county executive is? I would just expect the county executive to be coming in and making this presentation. This is not one, this is like five or six of the most important issues facing the county. It’s hard enough to tell our constituents, “We don’t have money to keep your business open, we don’t have money to keep you in your apartment,” but it’s heartbreaking to tell them, “We have the money, we appropriated it, and it’s in a bank account, we just haven’t given it to you yet. And we may not be able to.” And I would just think, if there would be one thing he’d be on top of, it’s this. I don’t want to be unfair to him, I’m happy to tell him that himself, but I’m a little shocked that he’s not here to make this presentation and that it also wasn’t made months ago.
Council Member Craig Rice
This lies firmly in the county executive’s lap. And look, I have been incredibly complimentary to the county executive in terms of how I think we’ve responded to the pandemic, and so now, I can also equally be critical of the fact that we failed. We dropped the ball. And it does rest in his court. That’s just the reality…
We cannot work as a county if we have a disconnect between the county executive and the county council on something that is so important as keeping people in their homes, putting food on their tables and making sure that they can continue to be employed. I mean, these are basics. And if it’s not happening, then there’s a serious problem ahead…
[To Stoddard] I just want to say I appreciate you falling on your sword, but sir, it’s not your sword to fall on.
With all due respect, I heard earlier about the county executive and his frustration. We don’t need frustration from the county executive, we need leadership. And thus far on these issues, we have not seen it, and we need to.
On top of all that, Stoddard made this grim observation.
The FEMA reimbursement process is going to be incredibly difficult, not just for us, but also for FEMA. And as I think I have alluded to before, my experience with FEMA is generally that if they can find a reason not to reimburse you for something, they’re going to find it. And they’re going to utilize that as a rationale to not reimburse.
The county was counting on FEMA to reimburse it for tens of millions of dollars in extra pay County Executive Marc Elrich granted to the county employee unions. If the county doesn’t get federal money to finance that extra pay, it will blow a massive hole in its budget. In that case, the next nuke could be launched at Rockville from Wall Street with the county’s bond rating at ground zero.