Missoula County seeks federal dollars to cope with pandemic as costs mount

Posted at 9:13 AM, Apr 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-24 11:13:30-04

MISSOULA — Missoula County is asking Montana’s congressional delegation for some of the funding Congress is doling out because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Thursday, the Missoula County commissioners sent a letter to Sens. Jon Tester, Steve Daines, and Rep. Greg Gianforte asking them to include direct funding for counties in future stimulus bills related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Montanans are proud people, much more likely to offer help rather than ask for it. Missoula County needs your help now before the virus forces much more financial water under the bridge. We are on the frontline providing the needed health and safety services that our residents require and quite frankly deserve,” the letter said.

The letter went on to detail how expensive the pandemic has been and will be for the county as it deals with healthcare issues, business shutdowns and other challenges.

Since March, the county has already spent more than $614,000 for various expenses caused by COVID-19. The health department and emergency operations center alone account for $440,000 of that.

Then, because employees have to work from home, and commission and other meetings are held online, the Information Systems department had to beef up computer equipment and cybersecurity to the tune of almost $57,000.

On Thursday, the commissioners approved the $24,000 purchase of Sophos Managed Threat Detection services to protect the data of employees working remotely. Projecting similar expenses into the future, the letter said the county expects to spend more than $5.4 million by Sept. 30.

The county commissioners argue that such expenses could not be anticipated. So little extra money was set aside, and on top of that, revenue is expected to be less than normal due to the past weeks of economic shutdown. The county is funded mainly by property taxes.

“The arrival of the pandemic could not have been anticipated, and the needs of our residents continue to grow,” the commissioners wrote.

On Thursday, budget analyst Amanda Henthorne said the county might be able to end the year with a cash balance of about $100,000, which could be put into a local COVID-19 fund to keep cash flowing to some county-related nonprofit organizations, such as the Missoula Food Bank. But to get that, other county projects have been put on hold, including the PHC.

Commissioner Josh Slotnik suggested that money from county land sales out by the airport could be used for the COVID-19 fund. But county financial officer Andrew Czorney said it would be better to keep that money as a rainy-day fund.

Czorney said the federal government would reimburse some of the money the county spends on COVID-19, but it may take months. For example, Missoula County finally received $170,000 this week from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that is reimbursement from the 2018 flood.

In the meantime, the county may run low on money, and a cash-flow problem could push the county into the red.

“I’d be hesitant to use it right now,” Czorney said. “I don’t want to use an old stewardess expression, but we need to put our oxygen mask on first before we help others. We won’t be of any help unless we have the resources to plug the gaping wounds now.”

FEMA reimburses 75% of expenditures that governments incur during emergencies, but that could be a long time in coming. The county is hoping to cover the other 25% using some of the $1.25 million that Montana received from the CARES Act, but it will have to get in line behind other Montana counties and organizations, and there may not be enough to go around.

The other kicker is that any other emergencies, such as a flood or wildfire, that occur during the pandemic are not reimbursed under the recent COVID-19 bills so they’re added expenses.

So that’s why the Missoula County commissioners want more Congressional aid for counties. But it didn’t happen Thursday, when the U.S. House was expected to pass another relief package, already passed by the Senate, totaling more than $480 billion.

But the money was tagged only for small business loans, hospitals and COVID-19 testing. That’s in addition to the $2 trillion CARES Act passed a few weeks ago, $350 billion of which was for the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses to help them keep their employees.

But some of the money didn’t go just to small businesses, so it quickly ran out. That’s partly what prompted Thursday’s $480 million bill.

“The latest stimulus 3.5 looks like it’s going to slide through, which provides funding for mostly small business loans and hospitals,” Czorney said. “We’ve been left out again. We’ll continue to fight the fight.”

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