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Missoula County to Congress: Provide direct pandemic aid to local government

Missoula County Courthouse
Posted at 10:38 AM, Jan 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-28 12:38:50-05

MISSOULA — As Congress considers a new coronavirus relief package, Missoula County is asking its members to include direct support to local governments, even those with populations under 500,000 residents.

In a letter to Montana’s congressional delegation, the county said the CARES act only included direct aid to the nation’s largest counties, leaving most jurisdictions without any federal support to cover the costs associated with the pandemic.

“There were a lot of challenges around the last act in the way the funding was distributed,” said county CAO Chris Lounsbury. “If counties had more than 500,000 people, then the funding went directly to counties and they had local control. But there were less than two dozen counties that meet the 500,000 threshold. Most places did not get direct funding, so it created real challenges.”

President Joe Biden is asking Congress to pass a $1.9 trillion relief package that would provide direct support to individuals and the unemployed. It would also provide $20 billion to state and local governments to help pay for pandemic-related costs.

The cost of the relief package has prompted debate in Washington, leaving elements of the final package uncertain.

“The last package that came out of the Senate just before the end of President Trump’s term did not include any funding for state or local government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lounsbury said. “This is a request directly to our delegation to ask them in this next package to consider funding to our local governments.”

Missoula County also supports proposals that would provide direct aid to local governments to fund economic development and job creation. It could also provide emergency assistance to help manage the homeless and provide both congregate and non-congregate housing.

Funding provided during the last relief package went to the state. Lounsbury said Montana was lucky in that former Gov. Steve Bullock passed a portion of that funding on to local governments.

“Our governor and others did direct some funding toward local government, even though it was through a reimbursement mechanism,” Lounsbury said. “Many other states surrounding us did not have that kind of experience, where really next to no money was passed on to local government.”

In its letter, the county urges Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, along with Rep. Matt Rosendale, to support the proposals in Biden’s relief package and ensure it includes direct aid to local governments.

In the past, county commissioners have said that local pandemic costs could be passed on to local taxpayers if Congress does provide direct support.

“I hope our congressional delegation is receptive to our request,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “Populations are relative and in the state of Montana, we are the second largest county in the state. This 500,000 population threshold seems like a one-size-fits-all for the entire nation that really doesn’t work for a state like Montana.”