COLUMBIA —Boone County should distribute the $21.2 million in coronavirus relief money it received from the state to incorporated cities and towns according to their populations, the Columbia City Council agreed unanimously during a work session Monday night.
The county could receive the money as early as Wednesday. County commissioners told the Missourian late last week that they were still pondering how they would distribute it.
Mayor Brian Treece has drafted a letter to the three commissioners asking that they act quickly to distribute the money on a per-capita basis. He said that would be the most transparent and expedient way to get the money out.
“Columbia is bearing a significant portion of the county’s response” to COVID-19, Treece said, noting that many of the people on the front lines of that response are city employees.
The state announced last week that Boone County would receive $21.2 million under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. That represents Boone’s share of $521 million that will be distributed to counties across the state.
Overall, the state received $2.8 billion under the CARES Act, and 25% of that is going to counties.
Boone County commissioners Janet Thompson and Fred Parry of the Northern and Southern districts, respectively, said last week that they were unsure how they will dole out the money. They said some of it could be distributed to businesses that have struggled during the pandemic, but Thompson warned that any business applying for money would have to demonstrate tight record-keeping.
Fifth Ward Council member Matt Pitzer on Monday asked the city’s new budget officer, Kyle Rieland, whether the CARES money is restricted for use only by government entities. Rieland said the county, and cities, have the discretion to spend it on other programs as long as they are directly related to COVID-19 and they don’t duplicate other programs already offered under the CARES Act.
The federal guidelines for how the money can be spent are vague but do say the money must be spent from March through December.
The city thus far has spent about $1.07 million on personnel and operational costs related to COVID-19, according to a staff report. Council members Monday said it’s important to know how much of the CARES money the city might receive so it can plan for the remainder of the year.
Commissioners at their regular meeting Tuesday morning were still wondering aloud how they will distribute the money. Parry suggested it will be not be disbursed to cities on a per-capita basis. Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill said that remains an option.
Thompson said a representative of the U.S. Treasury Department told members of the National Association of Counties recently that while the guidelines for how the money can be spent remain unclear, counties will be audited early next year to ensure the money was distributed appropriately.
The commission plans to further discuss the process at its Thursday afternoon meeting. Atwill said it should consider involving a citizens committee and a public process to decide how grants will be awarded. The county, he said, has “a lot of work” ahead.
“This is gonna be a big challenge,” Atwill said, adding that he expects to get applications that exceed the $21.2 million available.
Earlier in the City Council work session Monday, city Finance Director Matthew Lue reviewed budget cuts the city will have to make because of lagging sales tax and other revenue. The city will have to cut the equivalent of about 7% of its general fund spending, which covers day-to-day operations of city government.
The city will save the bulk of that by instituting a hiring freeze for nonessential positions. It also will postpone the purchase of 14 police vehicles and one truck for the Public Works Department, which will save $800,000.
Pitzer and Treece said it’s important that the city collect as much information on revenue as it can in the coming weeks, not only to prepare for the possibility of further cuts this year but also as it prepares to begin budgeting for fiscal 2021, which begins Oct. 1.