CLAYTON — St. Louis County is beginning to spend some of the $173.5 million in aid it expects from the federal government to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, County Executive Sam Page said on Tuesday.
But questions remained about what types of expenditures the county could make with the money, and whether expenses would need legislative approval.
Page said there was not yet any overarching plan for how to spend the money and no single official in charge of coordinating how it’s spent.
“We will have lots of staff focused on this,” he said. “We haven’t built a structure around it, but you know, we’re, we have the potential to spend the need to provide — almost $175 million worth of resources.”
“We see this really not as one crisis, but three crises,” he said. “It’s a health crisis. It’s a humanitarian crisis and it’s an economic crisis. And so we’re looking at each one of those and trying to understand the role of County government and how we can help people get back on their feet.”
County Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, said there was concern among the three Republican members who comprise the council’s minority bloc about who would provide oversight of the spending. Trakas said it’s the job of the legislative branch to appropriate money, and that, under the county charter, the council should be involved in how the aid is spent.
The aid is part of the $2 trillion federal stimulus passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Donald Trump to help the nation recover from the coronavirus pandemic. While each state will get at least $1.25 billion, the law provides for local governments that serve at least 500,000 people to get direct aid from the Treasury Department.
The funds must be used only on expenses related to COVID-19 that were not already part of the county budget, Page said, not to supplant tax revenue lost while businesses are shut down and people ordered to stay home.
He said the county was still waiting on rules from the federal government about how it can use the money, but that officials were going ahead with public health-related expenditures such as caring for people who are in isolation or quarantine and to pay overtime for first responders.
Page said the county has already gone ahead with millions in expenditures with the expectation that it will be reimbursed. For example, he said, the county has spent $7 million on personal protective equipment including masks, gowns, gloves and face shields. Some of that will be resold to other jurisdictions, he said.
Page said he did not know whether the county’s coronavirus expenses would go through the normal channel of getting legislative approval by the County Council. He said it depended on the federal rules.
“We’ll follow whatever the law says — local, federal and state,” he said. “But we also are in an emergency situation where we need to get services in the hands of people in our community quickly and we’ll find a path forward that does that and follows the law and the rules.”
Page said other expenses would include more workers to trace the contacts of infected individuals, technology so public health officials can communicate with people who are in quarantine, hotel rooms for first responders who have been exposed to the virus and for people who can’t safely isolate themselves at home without exposing family members. He said a number of homeless people who have either tested or are presumed positive for the new coronavirus are also being housed in hotels at the county’s expense.
He said the county would like to buy tests, but “unfortunately it’s difficult to buy tests anywhere in the United States. We’re scrambling like everyone, but we are operating in a limited testing environment because of the national shortage.”
He said, “Some of these expenditures need to happen promptly in order to get people the health care and humanitarian relief that they need. So, we will be trying to deliver those as quickly as possible.”
He said the county would be tracking its coronavirus expenses and public would ultimately be able to see how the county has spent the federal money.
“I understand that the public and press need access to our records,” he said. “We’re just dealing in a catastrophic type of response here to a humanitarian and public health emergency and our staff are pretty committed in that space. But, part of this expenditure should be done in a way where we can report it in a regular basis, how we’re spending the money. I think that’s fair and reasonable and that’s something that we will do.”
“We’ll try and find the right balance to communicate what we’re doing clearly while we’re providing emergency relief,” he said.