Metro Atlanta governments expect $600M in coronavirus aid

Fulton County Manager Dick Anderson, far right, wears a face mask to protect himself from COVID-19. Anderson said Wednesday that the county expects to spend $50 million responding to the coronavirus over the next few months. (AJC file photo)

Fulton County Manager Dick Anderson, far right, wears a face mask to protect himself from COVID-19. Anderson said Wednesday that the county expects to spend $50 million responding to the coronavirus over the next few months. (AJC file photo)

Five metro Atlanta governments will collectively receive more than $614 million in federal aid to help offset the costs of dealing with coronavirus.

The amounts received by Atlanta and county governments in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett will vary based on population. But each will get a substantial sum to pay for overtime, equipment, hazard pay for employees, personal protective equipment and other expenditures.

The money is coming from the CARES Act, a federal program meant to provide financial help to individuals, businesses and governments dealing with the economic fallout from the pandemic. It is a piece of $4.1 billion received by the state through the same program.

Only local governments with populations of 500,000 or more qualify for a direct subsidy. Smaller cities and counties must depend on allocations from the state.

The exact amount of money each government will receive is in flux, and the figures are estimates until the funds are received.

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Gwinnett has already received its money — $163 million from CARES, and an additional $25.2 million from five different federal grant programs.

Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said the county is still unclear if there are restrictions placed on the money’s use. She said the county intends to “utilize it as best we can for the benefit of the community” but needed to see details about eligible uses.

Governments all over the state are expecting huge budget deficits because of the economic impact of social distancing and stay-at-home orders on sales tax and property tax collections. Atlanta's chief financial officer said this week that he is expecting a budget deficit of more than $100 million next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Georgia State University fiscal researchers said last week that the state and local governments could see a $1.27 billion hit from lost sales tax revenue alone.

But the CARES Act money can’t go toward filling those holes. It can only be used to fund responses to COVID-19.

Fulton County is expecting roughly $100 million. County Manager Dick Anderson estimated the county would spend at least $50 million on its response in the coming months. But other expenses — like the potential need to build an isolation unit in the county jail — could cause that number to skyrocket, he said.

“There’s significant unknowns right now,” Anderson said. “We don’t know what we don’t know.”

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DeKalb said it would get $132.5 million in coronavirus-specific funds, and hopes for an additional $6.8 million from other federal sources.

The city of Atlanta, which stands to get $87 million, was almost left out of the direct funding.

That’s because 2018 population estimates showed the city had 498,000 residents — just shy of the minimum population needed to qualify for the program. Becky Taylor, the director of federal relations and research with the Georgia Municipal Association, said the city was allowed to use preliminary 2019 population estimates to hit the mark.

No one from the city responded to requests for comment about their ability to get the funds. But at a specially called City Council meeting last week, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms thanked Georgia Congressman John Lewis and Sen. David Perdue for helping tweak the federal legislation to allow use of the population estimate.

“We sounded the alarm” when the city realized it wouldn’t qualify because of its population estimates, Bottoms said to the council.

A representative from Lewis’ office declined to comment.

Cobb officials also declined to comment on the amount they expect to receive, but the estimate provided by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia says it will be $132 million.

Clint Mueller, the legislative director for ACCG, said the money is desperately needed because governments are “making the expenditures, whether there’s money there to fund it or not.”

Mueller said all the governments are on track to get their money by the end of next week.

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The state is not obligated to share its subsidy with smaller local governments. The ACCG and the GMA have written Gov. Brian Kemp and urged him to distribute the funds widely.

A spokesperson for the GMA said the groups are in discussion with the state but no agreement has been reached yet.

Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausmann worried earlier this month that costs associated with the pandemic, combined with unexpected expenses, would lead to a tax hike.

“I don’t want us to end up in a position where in the summer we’re going to be faced with raising the millage rate to pay for all this stuff,” she said.

Taylor, with the GMA, said every city is experiencing unanticipated expenses. Her organization surveyed 90 cities and found 78 that said they expected a revenue shortfall as a result of the pandemic.

But Mueller said many smaller governments may not have a choice but to raise property taxes, especially if the state is stingy in its distributions.

“The bottom line is no other cities and counties have gotten a dime,” Mueller said.

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Staff writers Tyler Estep, Meris Lutz and Stephen Deere contributed to this story.

Four county governments and the city of Atlanta will collect more than $614 million in federal aid from the CARES Act, according to estimates from the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. Gwinnett’s total is based on money it has received and DeKalb’s is based on its own estimate. Fulton has said it expects more of its apportionment to go to Atlanta, but did not have exact figures of what it expects to collect.

Gwinnett County…..$163.4 million

Cobb County…..$132.6 million

Fulton County…..$104.9 million

DeKalb County…..$132.5 million

Atlanta…..$87.2 million

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