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Metro counties begin fraught task of spending federal coronavirus aid

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond hands COVID-19 care kits out to residents at Big Lots parking lot at 2738 Candler Road in Decatur on Saturday, May 9, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond hands COVID-19 care kits out to residents at Big Lots parking lot at 2738 Candler Road in Decatur on Saturday, May 9, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Metro Atlanta government leaders have begun deciding how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in federal coronavirus aid.

Last month, the metro area's most populous jurisdictions — including the city of Atlanta and Cobb, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Fulton counties — received allotments totalling more than $600 million from the federal relief package known as the CARES Act. The federal government provided general guidelines for how the money can be spent, but receiving jurisdictions are left to figure out the specifics of how it will most benefit their communities.

Some governments have begun that process more smoothly than others.

In DeKalb County, CEO Michael Thurmond laid out a plan Tuesday that includes $6.1 million for 10 mobile testing units; $17 million to cover hazard pay for front-line county workers; a $10-million small business loan program; and $7 million to acquire personal protective equipment for various uses.

Thurmond also earmarked funding to launch education and prevention initiatives, help unemployed residents and seniors, and address food insecurity.

The plan also leaves in reserve nearly $58 million — about half of the $125 million DeKalb has received — in case a second wave of the virus emerges later this year.

“We don’t know the nature and the severity of the second wave,” Thurmond said. “We don’t know where it will be. But we know it will be.”

In his Tuesday morning presentation to DeKalb commissioners, the CEO said he relied heavily on the input of county’s district health director in developing the plan. Commissioners had plenty of questions, and some said they’d like to see larger allocations in different areas, but it was generally well received.

A similar conversation played out Tuesday in Gwinnett County, where grants manager Shannon Candler told commissioners about plans to distribute more than $163 million in CARES funds that must be spent by the end of the year.

The biggest needs include emergency food assistance, housing help and other social needs, Candler said. The county has plans to fund increased child care costs for workers whose kids would have normally been at school, and to provide both grants and loans to small businesses that need money to stay afloat.

Gwinnett is also planning to fund some programs that haven’t been priorities in the past – like one that tries to divert people from homelessness before they get an eviction notice.

In addition, Gwinnett leaders can now spend $6.8 million on a program to reduce food insecurity. Commissioners had budgeted just $150,000 for the program in 2020.

Other spending categories include things like police and fire hazard pay, personal protective equipment and technology upgrades to allow for more videoconferencing.

Like DeKalb, Gwinnett still has around $58 million yet to be allocated.

“We have the flexibility to address what we need to address,” Candler said.

Of course, asking county politicians to decide how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars creates friction. In Cobb County, which has received at least $132 million in CARES funds so far, ideological rifts have already been exposed.

Last week, Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce said he wished the federal government had allocated the money to specific programs instead of leaving it up to local officials.

“When you do that, then you open it up to the political process and then it gets kind of noisy,” he said.

And on Tuesday, a majority of Cobb commissioners approved spending up to $1 million in CARES funding to support local food banks whose leaders say they have seen a dramatic increase in demand since the pandemic began. Even that relatively small sum created a large debate.

“You put this money out there, people are going to be dependent upon that resource being there for them,” Commissioner Keli Gambrill said during an earlier work session to discuss it. “Are we going to get more people dependent on the government to take care of them or are we just going to be giving them a means to get back on their feet?”

Fulton County’s planning process also got off to a rocky start. The influx of funds has sown confusion and stoked tension between the county and some of its cities — a phenomenon that seems likely to crop up in other jurisdictions moving forward.

Mayors of six Southside cities recently wrote a letter to Fulton Chairman Robb Pitts asking the county to earmark half of its $104 million in CARES money for municipalities. Pitts responded by saying no, telling them that they need to go to the state like everyone else.

The county’s tentative spending plans, meanwhile, include about $25 million for personal protective equipment and supplies, and $50 million for additional health-related responses.

About half of the latter has been set aside for a COVID-19 isolation units at the county’s jails on Rice Street and in Union City.

Another $10 million block of CARES funding is being allotted for community response — and one of the programs funded by that money began this week.

Pitts told the AJC on Tuesday that Fulton is paying six restaurants a total of $450,000 to feed 300 children and 75 families living in extended-stay motels.

When the schools closed, many low-income students lost their only steady meal of the day. Though Fulton County Schools gave out more than 30,000 meals in just its first two days and has continued to provide meals, many in extended-stays don’t have a way to get to the sites, Pitts said.

As part of the contract, the six restaurants must deliver two meals a day.

The arrangement helps both families in need and struggling restaurants, Pitts said.

—Staff writers Ben Brasch and Arielle Kass contributed to this article.