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Some Missouri counties are waiting to spend millions in COVID-19 relief money

The St. Charles County County Jail on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in St. Charles, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
St. Charles County officials allocated some CARES Act funding toward improvements to the county jail, above. While the county would like to spend some funding from the American Rescue Plan Act on further improvements, plans are on hold until there is final word that such expenditures would be approved by the federal government for reimbursement.

Counties in Missouri will get more than $1.2 billion in the latest round of federal COVID-19 relief, but many, including smaller ones, are waiting to spend it until they get clearer guidelines.

“We really are a little bit reserved on what we can do with the money, cause there’s really been no clear direction on a lot of things with the final rule,” Dave Hinson, a commissioner for Franklin County, said.

Franklin County will receive more than $20 million from the American Rescue Plan Act. Hinson said beyond a few purchases for its health department, the county has not yet allocated much of its funding.

Other Missouri counties are finding themselves in a similar situation. When Missouri received its money from the 2020 federal CARES Act, only two counties, St. Louis and Jackson, received direct funding. It was then up to the state to divvy up dollars to the remaining counties, which it did based on population.

But unlike before, all counties, along with cities with a population of over 50,000, are now getting money directly from the federal government under the American Rescue Plan.

Bob Schnur, finance director for St. Charles County, said while the county has already received half of its $78 million allotment, its 2022 budget only tentatively includes some of those federal funds.

“We don’t want to embark on a program or a construction project and then find out in the final guidance that we’re doing something that’s not a permitted use of funds,” Schnur said.

One project Schnur hopes to spend some American Rescue funding on is continued work on the county jail. With previous federal funding from the CARES Act, the county spent around $19 million on improvements to the facility.

“We redid our booking area and completely renovated it to allow for the housing of prisoners in the booking area in cells that have negative air pressure so that the air handling systems vent directly to the outside,” Schnur said.

Schnur would like to use some American Rescue funding to further improve the jail but said officials are not going to move forward with any purchase order or construction contract until they know for sure it qualifies.

Steve Hobbs, executive director of the Missouri Association of Counties, said there is a sense of frustration statewide about the situation.

“From the county government perspective, a lot of times the state of Missouri is very happy to say, ‘Gotcha, oh no you shouldn’t have done that.’ And the federal government is even better at that. And so, I think we all want to be careful,” Hobbs said.

There is some guidance available, even if it isn’t final. In May, the U.S. Treasury Department established an interim rule on how to spend funds from the American Rescue Plan for state and local governments, including counties.

Hobbs said counties can spend their American Rescue funding on anything listed in the interim rules without fear of repercussions.

“We’ve been told very strongly by Treasury that if it’s in the interim rule, we’re not going to backtrack on it. So, we’ll hold their feet to the fire on that too.”

For Larry Welch, a commissioner for Marion County, broadband is certainly on the county’s spending shortlist, an already approved item.

“We don’t have broadband in all of the rural areas of our county yet,” Welch said.

Beyond the final rule, some counties are waiting on different federal action, a bill that has already been approved by the U.S. Senate.

Senate Bill 3011, unanimously passed in mid-October, allows for new categories of American Rescue spending, including for natural disasters as well as further infrastructure projects. It has yet to pass the House.

Hinson said if Congress were to pass the bill, $10 million would become more flexible for Franklin County to spend.

“We’re really trying to look at across the state, getting counties to send letters to our U.S. Congress people from Missouri to get them on board to try to get this passed to give some flexibility,” Hinson said.

Additionally, there is another issue that is causing some counties to pause before spending federal dollars: even more money.

In addition to American Rescue funding, Missouri will also receive billions through a federal infrastructure bill Congress recently passed.

Jefferson County Councilwoman Renee Reuter said there is a reluctance to spend some of its $43 million in American Rescue Plan funding on projects, such as broadband expansion, that down the road could be financed by the infrastructure bill.

“There’s a lot of pieces to this puzzle, and you don’t want to spend the money on something today that would use the money up so you can’t use it for another purpose and then get more money for the thing you just spent money on,” Reuter said.

Unlike the first federal relief package, the CARES Act, which had a tighter spending deadline, counties have until 2024 to allocate American Rescue funding, as well as until 2026 to spend it, which allows for more time to consider how to best utilize the money.

“I think it’s good that we have more time to think about it and I’m hoping that before any of the money is spent, we have a clearer picture of where we want to go and what we want to accomplish with it before we start spending money,” Reuter said.

Follow Sarah Kellogg on Twitter: @sarahkkellogg

Sarah Kellogg is the Missouri Statehouse reporter for St. Louis Public Radio

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