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Missoula County seeks COVID funding certainty from Congress as budgeting begins

As Missoula County gets down to brass tacks in writing next year’s budget, it’s looking to bill future expenditures under several broad values, ranging from diversity and inclusion to justice reform.

In a parallel move, commissioners also are asking Montana’s two senators to ensure any future COVID-19 relief package includes funding for local governments, which continue to struggle under the weight of the pandemic.

“It’s a big expense for local government to bear,” said county COO Chris Lounsbury. “We will continue to seek reimbursement from the CARES Act, but as of today, the CARES Act expires at the end of the calendar year, even though we don’t anticipate that our response will stop at the end of the year.”

The pandemic has forced the county to ramp up a larger and more robust Health Department to cover testing, contact tracing and staffing, among other expenses. The costs are adding up, and while most of them are expected to be reimbursed through past legislation, the future remains less certain.

And that uncertainty could complicate the county’s FY21 budget.

“The county is dealing with the same challenge every local government is dealing with related to COVID,” said Lounsbury. “There’s a great deal of unknown expenses out there. We’re looking over the next budget year at continued expenses out of the Health Department in access of $1 million related to testing and contact tracing.”

Just before negotiations broke down in Washington, D.C. last Friday around a new relief package, the county sent a letter to Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines asking them to include a number of measures in whatever bill emerges.

Among the county’s concerns, current legislation doesn’t provide direct allocations to cities with fewer than 500,000 residents. Under those rules, not a single Montana city is positioned to receive that funding with a complicated intermediary.

Current legislation also fails to provide additional funding for local governments and their response to coronavirus. The most pressing need for Missoula County, commissioners said, is continued funding for testing and contact tracing.

“Our response has cost millions of dollars so far and, with no end currently in sight, it will cost millions more to ensure effective testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine measures can stay in place,” the county wrote. “As a vaccine becomes available, it will cost more to make sure it is available to the public and can be administered quickly.”

The letter specifically seeks legislation that allows for revenue replacement, which the county said it needs to address shortfalls caused by pandemic-related closures. It also asks Daines and Tester to ensure additional restrictions aren’t placed on local governments related to funding.

“This is the right opportunity for the federal government to step up,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “It’s what they need to do.”

Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines

With negotiations stalled, the funding uncertainty could challenge the county’s new fiscal year budget. The first hearing is scheduled for Thursday and tax revenues, released last week, are less than what the county had projected.

“That was in part due to the reappraisal year, and there were a few outstanding adjustments,” said Lounsbury. “Like the city’s, ours were down a little lower than expected. We’re still working to address the budget inside the needs of the county and that number.”

Despite the uncertainty of funding, reimbursements and other fiscal matters, the county has identified seven broad values it will place into next year’s budget, including “diversity, equity and inclusion.”

They also include justice system reform; sustainability and climate change; safe and secure elections; growth and development; efficiency and oversight; and network and information security.

“We have some continued work that will happen next year in the criminal justice phase, in particular around mobile mental health,” said Lounsbury. “We’re looking to expand some of the work in the space around jail diversion. We’ll continue to work in the equity and diversity space, and look to broaden those.”