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St. Louis County charges ahead with coronavirus relief programs as city just gets started
CARES ACT DISPARITY

St. Louis County charges ahead with coronavirus relief programs as city just gets started

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ST. LOUIS — Like many small businesses, Logan’s Kids Resale in the city’s Dutchtown neighborhood suffers during the pandemic while its owner hustles and adapts, serving customers with video shopping and curbside pickup.

“I made $300 in one month,” Cassandra Logan said. “And we aren’t even going to talk about what that might not cover.”

The stretch of Meramec Street bisecting this South Side neighborhood includes several other resale and second-hand stores and boutiques. One of them, Tower Grove Antiques, is closing for good. And another shop owner near Logan confided to her that she may be shuttering her business, too.

Logan, who opened her shop in 2014, is not ready to quit. She said one of her friends recently sent her a link for a small business relief program funded by a federal grant.

She quickly realized she didn’t qualify. It was only for St. Louis County.

“It’s not fair,” she said. “We’re just as important as they are.”

Over the past several weeks, the St. Louis region has seen disparate efforts to recover from the pandemic. St. Louis County charged ahead with a relief plan of its own, funded largely with $173.5 million from the landmark Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

But the city it surrounds has only begun to talk about how to spend its smaller share, which includes just $35 million from the CARES Act.

Like many stories about the city and the county, the problem ties back to the “Great Divorce” of 1876, in which the city seceded from the county, as well as the city’s drastic population loss since the middle of the 20th century.

To rush relief to cities and states, the U.S. Treasury in April made $150 billion in grants to states and local governments with at least 500,000 residents. Smaller local governments, such as St. Louis, had to accept whatever the states were willing to pass down to them. In the city’s case, it was $35 million.

If the city and county had been one entity, under the Treasury’s formula, they would have collected a combined $20 million more in aid, according to the newspaper’s analysis.

The city of St. Louis was uniquely harmed by the Treasury’s formula. There are other cities, such as Baltimore, that are independent from a larger county. But Baltimore and Baltimore County each had a large enough population to qualify for direct aid.

There are cities with fewer than 500,000 residents that are part of a county that had a large enough population to get direct aid. For example, most of Kansas City is in Jackson County, which got $122.7 million from the Treasury.

And there are cities with fewer than 500,000 residents, such as New Orleans, that, like St. Louis, are not large enough to get federal aid — but, unlike St. Louis, do not sit next to a larger county that is large enough to get direct aid.

There is just one metropolitan area in the country with a central city that is not part of a local government that serves at least 500,000 people that sits adjacent to a county that does have 500,000 residents.

That’s St. Louis. And therein lies the disparity.

The city even received a one-third smaller CARES Act share than St. Charles County, which has a larger population but a fraction of the city’s infection rate and was able to reopen its economy two weeks earlier. Mayor Lyda Krewson said Friday she intends to seek more.

Also on Friday, Gov. Mike Parson acknowledged that the St. Louis area had suffered the greatest impact from the coronavirus. When asked whether he intended to rectify the funding disparity, he said that “counties and cities should be working together.”

Asked why St. Charles County received more than St. Louis, Parson answered that if St. Louis had more expenses related to COVID-19, they could turn the expenses in and “there may be other sources we can help to do that.”

Moving ahead, falling behind

Meanwhile, St. Louis County has rolled out more than $2 million to food banks. On Friday, it closed off applications for a $17.5 million small business relief program. It has set aside at least $5 million for aid for child care centers and may consider stimulus for nursing homes and long-term care centers.

Page and other county leaders have often spoken about protecting the most vulnerable residents. But, as the city idled, they have come under fire for spending aid without coordinating with the city, and seemingly without consideration of the proportionately greater need there.

After a Post-Dispatch story showed the disparity in the city’s and county’s efforts to hire people to locate and isolate residents who may have been exposed to the coronavirus, many city leaders and public health officials called for the county to pitch in to help the city.

Page and his top adviser on the coronavirus response team, Cindy Brinkley, have repeatedly insisted the county is barred from spending the federal grant outside the county. They point to a Treasury guideline that says a county may transfer funds to a city within the county, or may transfer the funds to the state.

The Treasury did not respond to a reporter’s request seeking clarification about whether St. Louis County aid could be shared with St. Louis or used in collaborative efforts with the city government.

Irma Esparza Diggs, senior executive and director of federal advocacy for the National League of Cities, said there could be a way the county could help the city.

“Our read is that counties should be able to transfer payments to cities outside county borders,” she said in an email. “But to be absolutely in line with this guidance, the county may need to ask the state to take the funds and reallocate to the city in question.”

On Friday, Krewson proposed a $64 million relief effort, which still requires approval from the Board of Aldermen. Krewson’s release came in the middle of the weekly aldermanic meeting, and aldermen said after the meeting they were hearing about it for the first time.

In addition to the CARES Act funds, Krewson said the city had $29 million from other federal programs tied to the coronavirus, and she said she is seeking to have the state release an additional $17 million.

She said her plan included $4 million in small business relief through the St. Louis Development Corp.

Meanwhile, city businesses wait for help. Some that received federal aid to keep their employees paid said they were worried about banking enough money to stay viable.

Andy Karandzieff, owner of the landmark Crown Candy Kitchen restaurant in Old North St. Louis, also said he was momentarily excited when he heard about the county’s business relief program.

“I’m like, oh, this is great,” he said. “This is another avenue to help smaller businesses, whether they’re new or they’re established. It’s just another level of installation to kind of protect you from all this. And then of course, when I hear that … there’s no money going to be for the city, and I’m like, all right, well, … (why) are we getting the short end of the stick on this deal?”

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