DeKalb cities weigh options amid rush to use coronavirus relief funds

May 9, 2020 Decatur - DeKalb County police and fire cadets passed out COVID-19 care kits containing two non-surgical masks and hand sanitizer to residents to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at Big Lots parking lot at 2738 Candler Road in Decatur on Saturday, May 9, 2020. DeKalb County Board of Health is supporting this initiative. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The clock is ticking for DeKalb County cities to use their allotment of federal coronavirus funds, leaving little time to decide how to pump that money into local needs.

In a contentious vote, county leadership agreed in July to share $32.6 million of its $125 million CARES Act funds with a dozen cities. However, they added a caveat that the cities must spend their funds by Dec. 10 or forfeit the remaining amount back to the county.

With mere months to spend the money, some city governments have been incentivized to quickly reimburse earlier pandemic costs, but others are attempting to fund ongoing projects before the end-of-year deadline.

“We’re trying to get this into people’s hands immediately,” Brookhaven City Manager Christian Sigman said.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act greenlit $150 billion in federal relief funds to provide states, counties and large cities with additional funds to weather unexpected costs of dealing with the virus. The money was distributed to counties based on population, but cities with a population less than 500,000 had to rely on county governments to share their portion.

Brookhaven’s $6.3 million allotment was the largest sum given to any DeKalb city, and Sigman said the city council will make sure every cent of that money is used by December. He said the city’s current plan prioritizes programs to relieve hunger, provide local businesses with support, assist the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta hospital with expenses and pay residents' overdue rent and utility bills.

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Once those efforts have been tapped out — or the Dec. 10 deadline creeps up — the city will use the remaining funds to reimburse police salaries and benefits, which is a common plan among cities with their own police departments.

“Once all the invoices are in and we’ve handed out all the food we can, and we’ve paid all the utility bills that we can, we’ll do a reimbursement against police salaries,” Sigman said, estimating that roughly $1.8 million will be left over for police.

Tucker does not have a police department, so instead the city is focusing on its nearly 3,000 businesses that have struggled to survive the pandemic. More than half of its $4.1 million allotment will go toward grants for small businesses and nonprofits.

“COVID-19 has been very detrimental to some of these businesses, and we want to keep these businesses here and help them during this difficult time," Tucker Assistant City Manager John McHenry said. "Helping the businesses helps keeps people employed and helps the local economy.”

Matt Hinton, the owner of Bell Street Burritos off Lawrenceville Highway, said he immediately contacted the city once he heard about the possibility of a small business grant, adding that the money would be a great help in keeping up with payroll costs.

Across three locations in Tucker and Atlanta, Hinton said he hasn’t had to let go of any employees, despite not reopening any of the restaurants for dine-in service. He opened a decade ago following the great recession, so he plans to weather this economic downturn as well.

“We have to make it up in other places or we don’t make it up at all or we just don’t see the profits," he said. “It’s certainly a strain.”

In addition to helping local businesses, McHenry said Tucker is attempting to help parents out. The city plans to give $500,000 of its CARES Act funds to a trio of churches that participate in a joint virtual learning program. Up to 210 students can go to the churches to tune into class, which will allow their parents to better focus on their jobs, he said.

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McHenry said it’s important to keep Tucker residents employed, since the city has several industrial corridors and many biotech-related companies. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Census, roughly 18,900 people are employed in the city, which includes an “unusually high" number of workers in professional, scientific and technical services. The median income for Tucker households is $67,810, which is about $3,000 more than the county average.

“All these dollars are going to go to programs that frankly wouldn’t be receiving these dollars if we hadn’t received them from DeKalb County," McHenry said. “This is a direct passthrough to our businesses and to our residents.”

Dunwoody Assistant City Manager Jay Vinicki said his city had similar priorities when the CARES Act funding was approved. The city plans to launch a program to provide relief for distressed businesses and began accepting applications last week for $300,000 of approved nonprofit grants. Applications will be accepted through 5 p.m. Oct. 15.

Dunwoody received about $5.6 million, which is being split among economic support efforts for businesses and nonprofits, public health measures and the city’s own payroll expenses. Vinicki added that nearly $2.8 million of the city’s CARES money was purposefully left unallocated.

“They don’t know the exact need out there," he said. "They don’t know how many applications will come in, but that contingency was created that large to help with those two programs.”

Here is a breakdown of how much money each DeKalb city received and how those funds will be spent:

Avondale Estates — $354,891: The city will use majority of its funds, about $265,000, to reimburse police and patrol services, City Manager Patrick Bryant said. Roughly $55,000 will go toward city employee leave pay, $26,300 will be used for safety and sanitation upgrades to city hall facilities and about $7,500 will be used to purchase PPE and other protective equipment.

Brookhaven — $6,300,934: With the largest allocation of any DeKalb city, Brookhaven plans to use about $2.1 million on rent and utility assistance programs and $1.8 million on police salaries and benefits. Nearly $1 million will also be given to the Children’s Hospital of Atlanta. The last portions will go toward IT expenses related to telework ($700,000), cleaning supplies and upgrades for county buildings ($550,000) and commercial business support ($100,000).

Chamblee — $3,437,420: The city presented a preliminary budget in August outlining how it plans to spend the money. It included about $1.9 million for payroll expenses, $695,000 for compliance, $600,000 for economic support and $195,000 for public health. The formal resolution on the spending plan will be released Friday, according to city spokeswoman Tisa Moore.

Clarkston — $1,433,288: The city’s funds have been split across a dozen projects, with the largest being $400,000 for an unallocated contingency budget. The other causes include $450,000 for rent and mortgage assistance, $260,000 for payroll and administrative costs, $100,000 for workforce deployment, $100,000 for utility payment assistance, $50,000 for hazard pay, $17,500 for legal services, $12,000 for police equipment, $7,500 for cleaning and PPE supplies, $5,000 for technology equipment and services, $1,000 for translation service and $1,000 for food for first responders.

Decatur — $2,914,440: The city has split its CARES funds into four categories. The largest chunk, $975,000, will be split among small businesses and nonprofits for relief. About $905,000 will go to employee expenses, such as pandemic pay and unemployment payments. The city will spend $700,000 on PPE equipment, cleaning supplies and technology expenses related to city workers working from their homes, while the remaining 11% of the money remains unallocated.

Doraville — $1,164,256: A final budget will be discusses and voted on in October, but prior city discussions included $303,000 for hazard pay for police and first responders, $250,000 for budget stabilization, $150,000 for meeting and document retention upgrades, $100,000 for touchless public restroom fixtures, $75,000 for public office renovations, $50,000 for temporary Wi-Fi hotspots, $30,000 for PPE equipment, $20,000 for paid leave and $10,000 for patrol vehicle sterilization.

Dunwoody — $5,597,957: About $1 million will go toward economic support, which includes $300,000 in nonprofit grants, roughly $1.25 million will go toward public health efforts and $500,000 will be used for payroll expenses. The remaining $2.8 million is unallocated, but city leaders anticipate using it for further economic support efforts if the need is there.

Lithonia — $264,382: LaThaydra Sands, the city administrator, said Lithonia’s funds have not been allocated yet, but the city council has discussed plans. A budget will be voted on Oct. 19 during a work session.

Pine Lake — $85,519: The city discussed preliminary ideas for the budget in late August but no action has been taken. The city did not respond to requests for comment.

Stone Mountain — $712,391: The city’s proposed budget allocates the money for police pay and benefits, hazard pay and reimbursement for cleaning and PPE costs, City Manager ChaQuias Miller-Thornton said. The budget will be voted upon during Tuesday’s city council meeting.

Stonecrest — $6,227,098: The city has not allocated its funds yet, city spokesman Adrion Bell said. No further information was provided.

Tucker — $4,127,920: The city plans to spend most of its funds, $2.3 million, on small business and nonprofit grants. About $900,000 will go to NETWORKS Cooperative Ministries for housing, food and financial assistance, $500,000 will go to a distance leaning program for children and $156,000 will go to PPE purchases. About $9,000 will be used to buy sanitation supplies, and the rest (about $274,000) is currently unallocated.

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