MISSOULA — In a meeting with Rep. Greg Gianforte on Wednesday, Missoula County officials expressed concern over certain restrictions related to the stimulus funding appropriated by Congress earlier this year to help state and local governments navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
Montana received around $2.5 billion in funding provided in the coronavirus relief act, though Missoula County commissioners said the funding hasn’t made its way from Helena into county coffers where it’s desperately needed.
Gianforte said it was the intent of Congress to see that local governments received a portion of the revenue. He said the funding received by the state represents nearly half of Montana’s annual budget and a portion of that was earmarked for city and county governments.
“We’ve already appropriated $2.5 billion to Montana for state and local government reimbursements,” Gianforte said. “There’s been a logjam in Helena and they’re just trying to get their act together over there. But it’s there. It’s been allocated and appropriated.”
Missoula County and others in Montana are asking the state’s congressional delegation to relax some of the restrictions attached to the funding.
Among them, Missoula County is looking to apply a portion of the funding to cover revenues lost due to unpaid property taxes stemming from the surge in unemployment during the pandemic.
“We’re running about 1% ahead of last year in terms of delinquencies, and it’s about $2 million,” said Andrew Czorney, the county’s chief financial officer. “It’s not insignificant for Montana. What I’m worried about is the fall. This fall if people continue to have lost revenue in their jobs, they’re not going to pay their fall taxes and it’ll create a cash flow problem for us.”
Czorney said the delinquencies could also trigger a second problem, that being penalty payments and interest on debt. If property owners remain delinquent and a tax lien is issued, investors will likely “swoop in” and buy the tax liens to capitalize off the high interest rates.
Gianforte said there’s little appetite in Congress to add lost revenue as a permission under stimulus funding.
“The likelihood that’s going to happen is very low,” Gianforte said. “Not because of anything you’ve done right or wrong, but there are states on either coasts running massive, massive deficits. They don’t have the fiscal discipline. I don’t think lost revenue is going to be among the valid reimbursements.”
County officials also asked Gianforte to support increased funding to expand public health work and testing. With the number of COVID-19 cases on the rise and a second wave expected, county health departments across the state will need to deploy an army of contact tracers to stay ahead of the virus.
“Without the personnel to identify potential cases early and implement prevention control measures, we’re unable to dial back strict social distancing orders and enter the next phase of the outbreak,” Czorney said. “We’re hoping Congress will provide funding for local, state, tribal and territorial departments to support the surge in contact tracers needed to expand testing.”
Czorney said the funding request isn’t included under the CARES Act. Gianforte said he’d look into it, adding that a number of provisions have been added to the funding regulations since the measure was adopted back in March.
“That would be a logical thing,” Gianforte said of the request. “I’d be supportive of that.”
Commissioners also said that counties, including Missoula, are addressing different aspects of the COVID-19 crisis, including infrastructure. By authorization additional appropriations for public transit or essential county infrastructure, Missoula County believes it would boost the state economy and put some people back to work.
Gianforte said Congress recently appropriated $3 trillion and tried to make the package as comprehensive as possible. He said fiscal conservatives in Congress are unlikely to authorize additional revenue, even for infrastructure.
“There’s a sentiment among some members of the House that we just spent $3 trillion. Let’s let that dog hunt a little bit,” Gianforte said. “Most of it hasn’t been spent yet. I know among the Republican caucus, that’s where the sentiment is. We just spent $3 trillion, so let’s safely open the economy back up, get back to work and see where the persistent friction is and target some of those dollars.”