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Coronavirus aid money brings relief, confusion to local governments

Dave Fletcher, right, meets with an attendant at the Cobb Tax Commission Office in Marietta, Georgia, on Monday, June 29, 2020. New social distancing signage, sanitation equipment and Plexiglass barriers were installed at the Cobb Tax Commission Office in Marietta, Georgia, and were paid for by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)
Dave Fletcher, right, meets with an attendant at the Cobb Tax Commission Office in Marietta, Georgia, on Monday, June 29, 2020. New social distancing signage, sanitation equipment and Plexiglass barriers were installed at the Cobb Tax Commission Office in Marietta, Georgia, and were paid for by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

For more than two months, leaders of cities in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties had been wondering how they would get access to the federal aid provided to help cover costs associated with responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

Those counties — plus the city of Atlanta — received a direct allocation more than $614 million collectively to pay for things like virus-related employee overtime, the purchase of protective equipment or architectural changes that encourage social distancing in their buildings.

But the counties didn't distribute money to the cities in their boundaries, with most telling them to appeal directly to the state for relief.

Last week, Gov. Brian Kemp sent them back to the counties.

In a letter to city and county leaders statewide, Kemp said the 48 municipalities in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett would have to ask county leaders for a share of the money their respective county governments received.

All four counties have indicated a willingness to share some of the proceeds, but at a far smaller percentage than suggested by Kemp, who said the allocations should be based on population.

Gwinnett has $10 million it plans to share with its 16 cities and the county health department, while Fulton has put aside $2.5 million for the 14 cities outside Atlanta. One, Mountain Park, has said it had no coronavirus expenses and wouldn't need the money.

Cobb is still determining what might be available for its six cities, though a spokesperson said officials “indicated a willingness to share a portion” of the $132 million the county received.

And DeKalb County leaders on Monday said they plan to make a total of $32.6 million available to a dozen cities, a little over a quarter of the $125 million in federal CARES Act funding the county received.

City leaders said they are glad to be receiving some money, but many still expressed frustration with the process or said the amount being shared isn't enough.

“I think it’s a pittance of what it should be,” said Bill Edwards, the mayor of the city of South Fulton. “When you divide it up between the cities, it was a pittance, it was low, it was embarrassing.”

South Fulton will be asking for $135,533 based on expenditures through mid-May, but Edwards said he’s concerned that distributions won’t be equitable.

Vince Williams, the mayor of Union City and president of the Georgia Municipal Association, said the amount Fulton County has made available won’t be enough to address the need.

“I am not one to say I don’t appreciate the gesture, but it is not appropriate,” Williams said. “Somebody’s really going to be left out.”

But Robb Pitts, chairman of the Fulton County commission, said the cities can expect no more. The county has allocated about 90% of the $104 million it received, Pitts said.

And when the county spends money on testing, food insecurity, job training or small business loans, that money is helping city residents, too. County Manager Dick Anderson said $60.9 million was going to help the cities through those expenditures and others, including $9.4 million the county spent on protective equipment that it is sharing with the cities.

“We have $6 million left to carry us through the end of the year,” Pitts said. “We don’t have any more. We will use that for county-wide purposes and therefore the cities will benefit.”

Mike Bodker, mayor of Johns Creek in north Fulton, said he understands the county has a lot of responsibilities. But, he said, the cities have needs, as well.

Johns Creek is requesting $103,573 in reimbursements. Under the state formula, he said, the city would be eligible for $12 million.

“It’s just simply unfair,” he said.

Fairness is a major issue for Larry Hanson, the executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association.

Compared to local governments in the rest of the state, he said, the 48 cities in the state’s most populous region have been largely left out. While the money was distributed to the counties based on population, the cities aren’t getting a proportional amount.

The Association County Commissioners of Georgia asked Kemp to allow the metro cities to be eligible for CARES funding from the state, as well, said Clint Mueller, the group’s legislative director. He said to do so would have reduced the amount available in the rest of the state by about 5%, but that Kemp’s decision to use U.S. Treasury Department guidance was the “safe thing” to do.

“My opinion is that counties are going to be more willing to give money to cities if the cities come with more information about how they’re spending it,” he said. “There’s enough ways we can legally spend it.”

In the Gwinnett County city of Lawrenceville, City Manager Chuck Warbington lauded the county for sharing the funds. But like other leaders, he said the process would have been easier for him if money came directly from the state, so local leaders could decide how to spend it.

“We could have made our own interpretations,” he said. “Now, we have to have it blessed by the county.”

If the county decides hazard pay is no longer warranted — it’s now only allowed through Wednesday — Lawrenceville won’t be able to request reimbursements for it, even if city leaders think workers deserve the boost.

Peachtree Corners City Manager Brian Johnson said if left up to him, he too would have chosen to get money directly from the state. But he said Gwinnett has been communicative.

In Cobb County, Acworth City Manager Brian Bulthuis said there are some changes in response to the pandemic that he has delayed while waiting to see how much aid the city will get. He wants to permanently enclose some customer service windows, and has stopped recording city council meetings because the community center they’ve moved into doesn’t have audio/visual equipment.

With more money, he said, the city can afford some of those improvements.

In Marietta, a spokesperson estimated the costs of renovating buildings, buying protective equipment, improving technology and cleaning public spaces could top $1 million.

DeKalb County mayors said the funding is crucial for making important budget decisions on things like hazard pay for front-line workers and assistance for local small businesses.

Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett called the agreement with DeKalb “a reasonable compromise,” saying she understands the emphasis on countywide programs.

But, she said, city leaders are on the ground and are better able to see local needs than leaders at the county level are.

Decatur — whose popular downtown is filled with shops, restaurants and bars — already launched a small business loan program earlier this summer. Garrett said the city also has incurred costs for personal protective equipment and cleaning.

“It’s been hard to know exactly how to spend money that we didn’t know if we would get or not,” Garrett said.

Staff writer Meris Lutz contributed to this story.