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Missoula County asks delegation to pass relief package, funding for local governments

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Posted at 9:14 AM, Dec 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-09 11:14:13-05

MISSOULA — The cost of responding to the coronavirus pandemic isn’t expected to ease after the new year, though the CARES Act adopted by Congress will.

On Tuesday, Missoula County urged Montana’s congressional delegation to find a compromise in a new relief package and ensure local governments are reimbursed for their COVID-19 efforts.

If a funding package isn’t passed, the county could look to taxpayers or service cuts to cover the costs, which amount to around $20,000 a day, according to the letters sent to the delegation.

“CARES Act funding expires at the end of December,” said Chris Lounsbury, the county’s chief administrative officer. “Missoula County is still a long way from being out of the pandemic, not to mention we’ll have a whole new piece related to vaccination that will ramp up as it becomes available.”

In three separate letters, the county asked Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, and Rep. Greg Gianforte, to reach agreement on a second funding package and to ensure that it provides direct assistance to local governments.

The county said it must spend around $20,000 a day in responding to the pandemic, including testing, contract tracing and other aspects. It’s currently leasing the drive-thru testing site and faces additional costs related to overtime.

While a vaccine is close, it will be months before the pandemic’s full threat has passed. Until then, the county said it cannot scale back its response.

“The cost of these operations are simply more than Missoula County can bear without significant impact to both services and taxes,” the county wrote. “Expiration of the CARES Act will have an immediate and adverse impact on our ability to meet the needs of our constituents who look to us in this difficult time.”

Last week, Missoula County and others across the state expressed surprise and dismay when Gov. Steve Bullock announced it will be redirecting certain CARES Act funding away from local governments.

Cities and counties have been using the money to pay for extra expenses incurred by public health departments, including contact tracing and other “presumptively eligible” costs.

Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said many counties had been banking some of that money to offset the costs they expect to face next year, knowing Congress may not pass another relief package by that time or provide additional funding to local governments.

But commissioners on Tuesday said that was a separate issue, and the letter sent to the delegation strictly looks to next year’s funding. The county health department on Tuesday that its preparing for vaccine access, though a date has not yet been determined.

“While vaccines and therapeutics are on the horizon, we are still many months away from being able to scale back our current operations,” the county said. “These operations are vital to the health and safety of our community, and will require even more resources as we look to accomplish a mass vaccination process that is almost unheard of in our times.”