Navigating COVID-19 and the CARES Act funding for counties
By Chris Villines
AAC Executive Director
For over two decades I have seen a lot of things in the government sector. And many times, the slow, methodical proclivity of government serves us well to not overreact and create unintended consequences. Plodding along forces multiple layers of review to make sure all angles are analyzed and evaluated. While this often is beneficial it can also create unnecessary delay and inefficiency.
Then comes COVID-19.
Everything I knew about our ponderous government has been thrown out the window in a series of rushed reactions it is not used to. Daily press briefings, minute by minute decisions, and changed guidance are all a part of this pandemic. And they have to be. Decisions made today set the curve in an exponential way down the road — and we are not talking about incidental significances, we are talking about lives.
I know many businessmen and businesswomen who have joined the ranks of county government. Many want to “make government run like a business.” Having grown up in the business ranks I see the wisdom in business efficiencies that can, in ways, make county government better. But this political promise is always set aside in part because government is purposefully designed in areas to seek input and decision-making that businesses have the luxury of avoiding.
Government values differing opinions that take time to gather and process. Businesses often react based on a CEO or Board of Directors making a decision and moving instantaneously. Both philosophies have merit and serve their respective duties well.
But back to my point, government is absolutely not used to, nor is it designed for, turning on a dime and changing operations quickly. The bottom line is that during the COVID-19 pandemic we have asked government to undergo the most profound changes it has ever experienced, and to do so quickly. Furthermore, we have asked it to do so within a bulky time-consuming framework of laws designed to slowly seek due process and input that the private sector does not have to adhere to.
Ladies and Gentlemen of county government in Arkansas — you have accomplished the impossible. We now have ZOOM quorum court meetings. We have segregated jails into infected and uninfected areas. We have rewritten 9-1-1 dispatch questions. We have socially distanced from our customers all the while continuing to provide mandated services. We have implemented new training, new programs and turned seldom used practices like absentee ballot voting into the norm.
We have worn masks, installed plexiglass barriers, implemented protocols regarding entering courthouses and courtrooms and rewritten jobs so that some can be accomplished remotely. Again, these are things that the business community has dealt with as well, but not within the constitutional and statutory frameworks that create friction to such actions.
I could not be prouder of you all.
Another fast-moving component that we are having to adjust to is the federal government’s distribution of $1.25 billion in aid to the state of Arkansas through the CARES Act. This $1.25 billion is labeled the Coronavirus Relief Fund and is administered through a 15 member CARES Act Steering Committee appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
I’d like to thank the members of this committee for recently approving $150 million of this money to be utilized by cities and counties in equal proportion for expenses related to COVID-19. Chairwoman Secretary Elizabeth Smith, Sen. Missy Irvin and Rep. Lane Jean have worked closely with us to put together a plan to allocate and distribute these funds.
The Department of Finance and Administration under the watchful eye of Secretary Larry Walther and Deputy Director Paul Louthian is working with us through the final stages of preparing applications and submittal processes. The state has partnered with CTEH Consulting/Hagerty Group to help facilitate this. We expect the application to be available on-line in the next few days and we will be working through the County Judges to facilitate this work.
Unfortunately, any of this money ($1.25 billion) not spent by Dec. 30 reverts to the federal government, which puts our counties on a very tight deadline for these applications. Our first deadline for applications is Oct. 30 so I expect a lot of data to be gathered over the next several weeks. Please coordinate all efforts within your county with your County Judge. The process is complicated in that some of the expenses will be submitted for FEMA reimbursement and others to the CARES Act, and we need one point of contact within each county to prevent duplicative requests.
Stay safe and stay healthy my county friends.