Here’s how some local governments spent $153M in federal CARES Act funds

The Senior Resource Connection, provides meals on wheel. The demand for meals has rose to 45% during the pandemic. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF
The Senior Resource Connection, provides meals on wheel. The demand for meals has rose to 45% during the pandemic. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF

A Dayton Daily News investigation into how local governments spent federal CARES Act funds this year found most of the money given out to local cities and townships went to bolstering their budgets.

A few local governments created assistance programs for local businesses and nonprofits. A smaller amount — but still millions altogether — went to cleaning supplies, computer equipment to help employees work from home and building improvements, such as new air filtration systems and bathroom fixtures.

The lion’s share went to payroll for police and fire personnel.

Greg Lawson, policy director of the conservative Buckeye Institute, said the CARES Act was helpful for local governments adapting to the pandemic. But, he said, taxpayers need to watch closely to see how government leaders spend the money they saved by covering police and fire payroll with federal funds.

“We’re sensitive to why you need public safety. That’s the No. 1 thing the government does. But you can’t just give a complete blank check or you’re incentivizing people to spend their already existing dollars in ways that are preferred ways of spending rather than necessary ways of spending,” he said.

“You want to make sure the local governments are kind of tightening their belt in the unessential areas, not just saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got this free money from the feds, now I can spend however I want to over here because they’re taking care of my payroll over there.’”

How local governments spent the money

The $2 trillion CARES Act included $4.5 billion for Ohio. Montgomery County received $92.7 million directly. Another $1.175 billion was given to the state to dole out to local governments. Cities and townships in Montgomery County received a total of $39 million and governments in Greene County got $21.5 million.

The money was intended for unbudgeted expenses caused by the coronavirus pandemic this year; program rules stated it could not be used for things in the governments’ budgets before COVID-19 hit.

But in September, the U.S. Treasury issued guidance saying payroll and benefits for public safety, public health, health care and similar employees was an allowable expense.

The Dayton Daily News used Ohio public records laws to obtain records from Greene and Montgomery counties and the 13 cities and townships in them that received more than $1 million in CARES Act funds. Most spent between 60% and 100% of it on public safety payroll.

Xenia spent all of the $2.5 million it received to help cover the city’s $12.5 million police and fire payroll. City finance director Ryan Duke said they are currently looking at holding the money they saved in reserve.

“The impact of the pandemic to city revenues has been significant and could have long term implications on the tax base,” he said. “Until we can be sure that a recovery has occurred and that the local economy is capable of supporting core services like public safety, we will be reluctant to recommend spending down the dollars.”

The city of Kettering spent nearly all of its $3.2 million on public safety payroll, except for $12,333 to set up employees to work from home.

“Like most cities, Kettering has endured some heavy hits during 2020 due to the pandemic impacting both revenues and expenditures,” City Manager Mark Schwieterman said.

The savings haven’t been earmarked for specific use, he said, noting that Kettering residents still expect their local services.

“The events of 2020 make it clear that our approach of spending these monies carefully is critical for our continued ability to respond to the unexpected,” Schwieterman said.

Greene County commissioners received $10 million in CARES Act funds and used $7.3 million to cover most of the sheriff’s office’s $10 million annual payroll.

“The money we saved in the general fund will make up for the loss of revenue from several sources that we have already experienced and that we project to lose in 2021 due to the pandemic,” Greene County Administrator Brandon Huddleson said.

Harrison Twp. covered nearly half of its fire department payroll budget with more than $1 million from the CARES Act. Township Administrator Kris McClintick said this freed up moneyto purchase a new $265,000 ambulance, and the rest will be carried over to next year.

The city of Dayton received $17.4 million in CARES Act funds. It used $7.3 million on fire department payroll. That department’s total annual payroll is $38.5 million.

Any surplus from using CARES Act money to cover payroll will go to reserves or one-time uses such as deferred technology, facilities, infrastructure and neighborhood improvements, according to Dayton officials.

The city struck “a balance of ensuring our organization continues to be adequately prepared and equipped to respond to, and operate, during the pandemic, providing much-needed relief to the community, and minimizing adverse impact to the general fund for the extraordinary COVID-19 expenses,” city spokeswoman Melissa Leysath said in a statement.

Montgomery County has not pledged any of its funding toward public safety salaries, according to a county spokesman. It does have a personnel budget of $410,110 to administer and distribute its large CARES Act grant, of which $181,313 had been expended as of Dec. 18, according to the county.

Business, nonprofit grants

Greene County spent $1 million on grants to local businesses with 50 or fewer employees, providing up to $10,000 each to cover rent, mortgage and utilities. Recipients included restaurants, service industries, physicians and more.

Some cities in Greene County said they didn’t do a grant program because the county did.

Dayton gave out $5.2 million in community assistance. That included $3 million to 19 local cultural organizations — such as museums and performance venues — with the largest amount of $300,000 going to the Dayton Dragons. Another $1.5 million went to 22 nonprofits, the largest being payments of $107,203 each to Daybreak and Equitas.

The city gave 31 businesses a total $309,057 in grants. The maximum amount of $15,000 went to The Dayton Steam Plant, Lock 27 Brewing, Gem City Car Wash and Brightside.

The city of Centerville gave grants of up to $2,500 each to 27 local businesses using CARES Act funds. Other cities such as Kettering and Miamisburg gave out grants using money other than the CARES Act.

Furniture, police cruisers

Other common uses for CARES Act money included paying back employees placed on administrative leave because of COVID-19 shutdown orders; that totaled $1.7 million for Greene County government.

Local governments also bought lots of cleaning supplies, laptops and other computer equipment for employees to work from home.

There were also unique purchases from one city to the next.

The city of Huber Heights spent $83,454 to install touchless bathroom fixtures like toilets and faucets in all city buildings. Another $2,000 bought new chairs for the council chambers, which the city council Clerk Anthony Rodgers said are stackable to allow for easy storage and appropriate social distancing in the council chambers.

“The previous chairs were fabric chairs, about 30 years old, that could not be properly sanitized and cleaned as needed,” Rodgers said.

Washington Twp. spent $341,544 replacing the HVAC system at its town hall after mold and poor ventilation was found following the state-ordered building shut down in the spring.

“(We) determined that the airflow and air quality had to be improved to help mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 or any other virus and needed to be completed before patrons used the facility again,” said township Finance Director Mike Barlow.

Fairborn spent $130,000 buying and outfitting two new police cruisers in order to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, city Finance Director Randy Groves said.

“With the current number of officers and supervisors driving the available vehicles, there was no time to properly disinfect the vehicles before the next shift started their tour of duty,“ city Finance Director Randy Groves said. “This left the officers, citizens and potential arrestees vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.”

All jurisdictions say they were careful to spend CARES Act money in line with program rules. Those rules set three criteria for spending the money: Expenditures must be necessary due to the coronavirus; were not budgeted for prior to the CARES Act; and were incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30.

The Ohio Auditor of State will review how the money was spent as part of local government audits next year. State Auditor Keith Faber said his office will use “maximum flexibility” but encouraged governments to make sure everything is documented.

“Entities must be able to demonstrate how the expenditure meets the three-prong CARES Act requirements and other guidance from U.S. Treasury and the Ohio Office of Budget and Management,” said auditor’s office spokeswoman Allie Dumski.

Montgomery County

Montgomery County received a $92.77 million allotment directly from the U.S. Department of Treasury, as did other local governments with populations above 500,000.

Montgomery County put roughly a quarter of that money toward educational institutions, including local schools. A majority is being used to bridge a digital divide, according to officials.

The Montgomery County Educational Service Center received three grants totaling $5 million. That will be used to provide WiFi hotspots, Chromebooks and “upskill” training to teachers, said Shannon Cox, ESC superintendent.

A study conducted between March and May found thousands of students lack internet connectivity, and surveys by schools revealed more than 24,000 devices were needed. The ESC supports 16 public school districts in the county, as well as other charter and private schools.

A little more than 20% of the county’s CARES Act money flowed to nonprofits.

Area nonprofits suffered as the pandemic and stay-at-home orders took hold. Arts and cultural institutions had to close their doors and cancel performances while social service organizations saw demand grow.

Senior Resource Connection, which provides Meals on Wheels primarily in Montgomery County but also in Darke, Greene, Miami counties, saw demand jump nearly 45% during the pandemic. The nonprofit now serves about 2,400 meals daily, according to Chuck Komp, the organization’s director.

Senior Resource Center received a $244,224 grant from Montgomery County that is going toward the lease of two larger coolers to keep up with demand, as well as hedge against any disruptions in the food supply chain, Komp said.

But the freezers are expensive, he said, costing about $6,000 a month.

“We continue to deliver hot meals five days a week to folks, but we’ve needed to switch to more frozen meals in order to meet the dramatic increase in need that we’ve experienced since March,” he said. “And that need has not dissipated at all.”

The CARES Act grant money also went toward the purchase of commercial kettles and steamers to boost kitchen efficiency, Komp said.

The county’s largest nonprofit grant, nearly $7.6 million, went to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

The grant went to multiple projects, including a new day building at the Gateway Shelter for Men that allows for socially distanced meal distribution and space for services and programming. The building will allow gymnasium space currently used for those purposes to be converted to socially distanced bed capacity, according to the county’s agreement with St. Vincent de Paul.

“The major goal that we have to accomplish is creating appropriate social distancing. We’ve lost a third of our space because of social distancing,” said Michael Vanderburgh, St. Vincent executive director.

More bed space will also be gained at its Apple Street Shelter through other renovations. A bathroom renovation there will create eight separated bathrooms.

“We’re both preparing as best we can to avoid turning anyone away from shelter who needs it and still keep the social distancing that the pandemic requires,” Vanderburgh said earlier.

The county also approved $2 million toward the installation of a WiFi system in five public housing communities and an $800,000 grant for the YWCA Dayton to improve its domestic violence emergency shelter to mitigate the effects of COVID-19.

A host of smaller nonprofits have received dozens of more modest grants.

A $40,000 grant is helping keep Dayton Public Radio on the air, said Shaun Yu, president and CEO of Discover Classical WDPR 88.1 FM and WDPG 89.9 FM.

The pandemic forced the cancellation of the Rising Stars Gala, the stations’ only outside annual fundraiser typically held in early June, which raises about the grant amount, Yu said.

“For a small nonprofit organization like ours, that’s significant,” he said.

Housed in a windowless area on the first floor of the downtown Metropolitan Arts Center, Dayton Public Radio purchased air purifiers to keep those in the office safer and made network upgrades so others could work from home, Yu said.

“We are very mindful of the fact that these are public dollars at work here. And we are absolutely grateful to have these funds available to us for previously unbudgeted items,” he said.

Much like the run on toilet paper, the pandemic also caused a shortage of diapers at a time when more parents of infants lost jobs or had hours cut, said Rosemary Robert, co-founder and executive director of the Gem City Diaper Bank.

The nonprofit received a $10,000 grant to continue serving families, some with multiple young children needing diapers, which government assistance programs that typically support struggling families — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and Medicaid — don’t cover.

The grant is also going toward expenses at its Trotwood facilities, Roberts said.

“Diapers are essential and it’s a crisis among low-income families. The pandemic is also a crisis. And when you put the two together, it’s not good,” she said. “We want to make sure that we can keep as many babies as we can clean, dry and healthy.”

Hundreds of small businesses and sole proprietors also received grants, each totaling $10,000.

Sherry Smith, a stylist who works from Salon Lofts in Washington Park Plaza in Centerville, was among those out of work for two months after the state shut down hair salons.

The grant arrived “just in time,” Smith said.

Even after reopening, Smith was hit with other unexpected expenses: the need for extra capes, disposable towels and more sanitary supplies. And only one client could be served at a time

“It helped a lot because I’m making less income, but I can still cover the operating expenses until things get back to normal,” Smith said. “To have that security and not being in a panic … That was the most valuable thing I got out of the grant.”

Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert said the county should have all the data together by the end of January for a full accounting of how it distributed the money.

Montgomery County Commissioner Debbie Lieberman said the CARES Act was “not enough,” and local businesses need new federal assistance.

“It won’t be exactly like the last round, we know that, but anything can help, especially our restaurants and small businesses — it’s just not good,” she said.