Maricopa County received more from the federal government’s Coronavirus Relief Fund than any other local government in Arizona but has spent the least, according to a Department of Treasury Inspector General interim report.
The county received $398 million in March and had spent only $10 million by June 30, or about 2.5% of the aid. Maricopa County received 14% of the $2.8 billion that was sent to Arizona for COVID-19 response.
The Coronavirus Relief Fund was created by the CARES Act, and the money can be used to address public health needs directly related to the pandemic, including expenses related to helping with “compliance with COVID-19-related public health measures” such as measures to facilitate distance learning, providing paid sick leave and maintaining state prisons, according to the Treasury.
Overall the state has spent 19.7% of the money it has been given, according to the report, with Phoenix spending the most.
Phoenix has spent over half of the $293 million it was given, and the city council voted in May on how to use the funds.
Maricopa County said the Treasury report is misleading and incomplete, as it doesn’t take into account how cities and counties have allocated their money, only how much of it has been actually spent. The county has planned future expenses, entered into contracts and hired staff hired, Maricopa County Board of Supervisors spokesman Fields Mosley said.
“Maricopa County Board of Supervisors has prioritized the Public Health emergency response because that is the responsibility of counties,” Mosley said in an email. “They also realize this will be a prolonged emergency that will require those additional funds to help people and support other institutions (such as schools) long-term.”
According to the county, nearly $42.2 million has been allocated and spent, totalling about 10.6% of the federal aid. That figure is still lower than any other county and city.
“There are major spending items already underway that are not included in this total such as Rental Assistance, Flu Vaccination and Non-Profit support,” Mosley emailed. “In addition, the County has created 146 new positions to support the COVID response; payroll for these positions is not included in encumbrances shown here, which understates the total by quite a bit.”
The report and spending by the county, or lack thereof, has caught the attention of U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, who penned a letter to the board of supervisors in late June saying that the county was not investing enough in contact tracing.
The board hasn’t formally responded to Stanton.
But at least one member of the board has spoken with Stanton about his concerns, though, and feels that Maricopa County is spending the money appropriately — though perhaps not quickly enough.
“We are in a crisis, and that money is needed out the door,” District 5 Supervisor Steve Gallardo said about rental assistance monies the county has set aside. “I think as a government we need to streamline this process.”
Maricopa County has set aside $30 million of the relief fund money in the budget to be used for rental assistance and eviction protection. However, according to a spreadsheet provided to Arizona Mirror by the county, none of that money has actually been spent.
The county has hired an additional 146 positions, some of which Gallardo said will be tasked with helping undertake the job of helping people navigate the rental and eviction assistance programs but he still hopes there is a way to remove some of the red tape that is in the way.
Gallardo applauded the work that the county has been able to do with the money they have spent and dedicated so far, including giving out free masks in areas such as Maryvale, making masks available in some elementary schools and creating a COVID-19 outreach and education program in Guadalupe.
“I don’t think I’ve ever focused as much on an issue as I have in the last four months,” Gallardo said.
However, one area where the board and Stanton still disagree is on the issue of contact tracing.
In his letter to the board, Stanton urged the county to spend more than $14 million it has committed for contact tracing. The congressman pointed to Harris County, Texas, whose population exceeds Maricopa by 200,000 and has spent five times what Maricopa County has.
Gallardo said contact tracing simply isn’t effective until the virus is “under control” and suggested that state leaders should focus on mask mandates, testing and lab capacity. However, contact tracing is often considered a powerful tool in slowing the spread of an infectious disease.
Gallardo and Mosley touted many expenditures that the board voted on and has set aside for further spending, even though the money hasn’t actually been spent.
For example, the board has set aside $20 million for school support, which Gallardo said will be used to help with distance learning. But with the school year beginning last week and this week across the county, none of that money has actually been spent.
Gallardo said that the board has been in discussions with several school districts about their needs and they plan to use the money to help buy additional infrastructure to make digital learning easier.
Similarly, $5 million for fire districts appears and $5 million for long-term care facilities has been allocated but not spent.
The county has spent more than $6 million on employee COVID-related leave, $3.8 million on physical safety enhancements, $5 million for homelessness mitigation measures and $6.5 million on personal protective equipment.
The two largest pools of money that have been set aside by the county is $97 million for on-going emergency preparedness and response and $50 million for COVID and flu testing.