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Missoula County still waiting for CARES Act funding; accuses state of restricting funds

Nurses with the City-County Health Department staff a testing station. Missoula County said COVID-19 expenses, including meals for nurses and contact tracers, have been denied for reimbursement by the state despite the intent of Congress and what’s outlined in federal statute. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

More than a month after submitting information as required, Missoula County this week said it has not received any CARES Act funding from the state, and it’s now looking to local members of the Legislature for answers.

Missoula County commissioners have raised the issue several times in recent weeks, which included a meeting with Rep. Greg Gianforte. Gianforte said it was the intent of Congress that local governments see a portion of the $1.25 billion received by Montana in CARES Act funding.

Andrew Czorny, the county’s chief financial officer, said the county submitted its first request to Helena using a spreadsheet provided by the state for reimbursement purposes in mid June. More than a month later, he said, the county has not received any CARES Act funding and most of its requests have been denied.

“There are restrictions placed on the eligibility of county reimbursements beyond what is called for in the Department of the Treasury’s guidance,” he told county commissioners, who remain perplexed by the lack of state funding.

Czorny said that Treasury made a number of costs related to COVID-19 reimbursable under the CARES Act, though the state has placed added restrictions on the payments and has not distributed the funding.

Among them, he said, the county has twice submitted a request for reimbursement to the state for public safety payroll expenses related to 911 personnel. A reimbursement request for costs related to detention center deputies also has been denied.

Czorny said the state also has denied hazard pay for employees who spend most of their time responding to public health issues related to COVID-19. The county’s request for reimbursement for meals provided to the Health Department’s nurses while staffing test centers and working overtime to conduct contact tracing was also denied.

“Missoula Aging Services was denied reimbursement in their request for increased costs associated with providing meals to the most vulnerable citizens,”Czorny said. “There’s a line in Treasury guidance that speaks exactly to that point. These expenditures are directly related to an increase in services due to COVID-19.”

Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday said the state’s effort to reimburse local governments “is in full swing.” In compliance with federal guidelines, he said the state is working closely with the Montana League of Cities and Towns and the Montana Association of Counties to reimburse local governments for expenses related to COVID-19.

Bullock said the first $32 million distribution has already been made to local governments. The state will begin reviewing its second round of applications soon. The funding to local governments will be made in four phases, he said.

“Part of the $800 million we’ve allocated to date includes up to $300 million for anticipated costs incurred by local governments related to COVID-19,” Bullock said. “At this time, federal guidance only allows local and state governments to issue funds for those direct costs related to COVID. The funds cannot be used to backfill any revenue shortfalls.”

Czorny said the process the state has chosen to issue CARES Act funding is time consuming, duplicative and in some cases, sits “in direct conflict to the guidance provided by the Treasury Department.”

As required by the state, Missoula County said it submitted “an exceptionally large” PDF detailing to the penny all requested reimbursements. Czorny said the state then asked for written narratives for every expenditure, such as meals to COVID-19 workers at the health department.

“Now they would like us to take reports from our accounting system, generate them and extract the expenditures from each category within our line items,” he said. “We’re doing a complete reversal so they can see that the expenditures were actually made. Do they think I’m falsifying expenditures just to get CARES ACT money? It’s absolutely insane.”

Missoula County commissioners brought their concerns to Gianforte during a recent visit. Gianforte said the funding received by the state from the CARES Act represents nearly half of Montana’s annual budget, and a portion of that was earmarked for city and county governments.

“We’ve already appropriated $1.25 billion to Montana for state and local government reimbursements,” Gianforte said. “There’s been a logjam in Helena and they’re just trying to get their act together over there. But it’s there. It’s been allocated and appropriated.”

Gianforte is running for governor and Bullocks is running for the U.S. Senate., leaving some to question whether the funding has been politically charged.

Congress is currently negotiating a new economic relief package, and Bullock is encouraging Washington, D.C., to provide additional assistance to local and state governments. He said the state has allocated $800 million in funding already in its response to both short- and long-term economic needs.

“The relief fund was intended to assist states’ responses through December, which is still six months away,” Bullock said. “We have to makes sure we have the resources to weather the next six months. Because we’ve held back some money, we’ve retained our ability to be flexible and act quickly when new needs are identified.”

In a letter to Missoula’s legislative delegation, Missoula County believes Treasury guidelines are clear and don’t permit the state to deny CARES Act reimbursements beyond what’s outlined in statute.

“Other restrictions are not permissible,” the county’s letter reads. “Missoula County would argue that the volumes of information being requested is well beyond insuring compliance with (federal law).”