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How did local government spend federal CARES Act dollars? (updated)


Part one: Reno 

This is the first in a three-part series examining how local governments spent federal Coronavirus Relief dollars.

On Sunday, Congress avoided another potential federal government shutdown and arrived at a deal that should deliver the first significant infusion of federal dollars into the United States economy since early in the pandemic.

A $900 billion economic relief package has finally passed after months of partisan gridlock in Congress that have left people across the country frustrated as their businesses and families struggle to make ends meet.

All the while, the deadline has been drawing nearer for recipients of the first round of federal stimulus money to spend those dollars.

The largest stimulus package in U.S. History 

It has been about ten months since the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act—the CARES Act—was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27.

The $2.2 trillion economic stimulus package was unprecedented in scope and size. The largest in U.S. history, it’s more than double the combined amount of the latest package’s $900 billion and the $831 billion stimulus act passed in 2009 in response to the Great Recession.

Spending under the CARES Act included $300 billion in one-time cash payments to individual Americans, with most adults receiving $1,200. It also included $260 billion in increased unemployment benefits and $350 billion for the implementation of the Paycheck Protection Program to provide forgivable loans to small businesses, which was later increased to a total of $669 billion. Another $500 billion was set aside for big corporations—and $339.8 billion went to state and local governments.

Among the programs established under the CARES Act to benefit state and local governments was the $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF). Out of this, the State of Nevada received $1.25 billion—minus $295,004,620 received by Clark County and $118,944,280 received by the City of Las Vegas directly from the federal government, an option that was afforded through the CRF to cities and counties with populations greater than 500,000. Following U.S. Treasury Department rules for the CRF, the state allocated $687 million of the remaining money to cover its own priorities and agencies and doled out another $148,551,100 to the state’s other 16 counties and the cities contained within them.

Washoe County received $20,254,818 from the state. Reno received just more than twice that at $46,678,013. The City of Sparks received $19,176,261. Together the three entities received nearly 60% of the total funds given out by the State of Nevada to its smaller towns and counties.

This Is Reno took a deeper look at how Washoe County, the City of Reno and the City of Sparks used their funds for different priorities. We will present that information in a series of three stories, starting with the CRF spending by the City of Reno.

“Teams of people have tasked themselves from normal city work and have really added dozens of hours of work every week to help get this done.”

How has the City of Reno spent its Coronavirus Relief Funds?  

The City of Reno broke down its more than $46 million in CRF funds into 12 funding “buckets” aimed at addressing issues ranging from support for the city’s unsheltered population to relief grants for small businesses and regional emergency operations to parks programming. City of Reno Chief of Staff Dylan Shaver delved into the numbers for This Is Reno, which he has also presented during recent Reno City Council meetings.

Shaver explained that while—as of mid-December—the city still had over $4.6 million of its total funds remaining, he had little doubt the city will be able to allocate all of them. He also explained that although city staff’s recommendation was that any leftover funding be dedicated to public safety—a cost approved by the Trump Administration and U.S. Department of Treasury for CRF spending—any remaining funds would wind up in the city’s general fund and would not necessarily be dedicated to funding the Reno Police Department or Reno Fire Department.

The following numbers represent spending in the 12 “buckets” as of mid-December.

This money was allocated to cover what the city deems “hard costs” of dealing with the coronavirus. These include things like paying overtime, buying personal protective equipment, testing, paid family leave, unemployment claims, workers’ compensation claims, emergency services and costs associated with “substantially different” work assignments.

2. City’s share in the costs of the Regional Emergency Operations Center —$5,732,209 of $6,120,000 spent 

A little over $5.7 million was put toward the city’s share of the costs for the Regional Emergency Operations Center (REOC), for which Reno is responsible for 35% of total funding. This included things like paying for the costs of operating the Reno Events Center as a temporary shelter site for the housing insecure. This figure also includes $2,625,000 for a rapid COVID-19 testing partnership with area Walgreen’s stores.

An additional $384,000 remains in reserve. However, according to a report Shaver provided to the Reno City Council in early December, “with the surge in COVID cases, there are a variety of additional emergency needs in the region to combat the virus.”

Temporary bedding at Reno Events Center for people living homeless.
Temporary bedding at Reno Events Center for people living homeless. Image: Trevor Bexon

Ostensibly, the City of Reno may be able to get the federal government to reimburse it for up to 75% of these costs through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as a condition of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.

However, according to Shaver, “From an administrative perspective, we have always sort of operated under the assumption that FEMA payback on the scale of every locality in the country suffering the exact same emergency for this long—we do not anticipate that reimbursement in that manner is likely. And, if it is likely, if it is going to happen, we don’t anticipate that it would be timely.”

3. Remote work and facilities compliance—$3,944,090 

To enhance city employees’ remote work capacity and facility compliance with COVID-19 mitigation mandates from Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak, as well as recommendations from the Centers of Disease Control, Reno allocated $3,944,081. This money has been used for things ranging from temperature monitoring inside city facilities to the installation of new, touchless faucets at city hall.

4. Support for the unsheltered—$9,448,116 

This line item has been dedicated to the city’s unsheltered population with the goal of allowing for social distancing, enabling public health compliance and implementing preventative measures to support the unsheltered population—including the planning for the Nevada Cares Campus, a homeless shelter to be located off of East Fourth Street near the Governor’s Bowl Park.

According to Shaver, “The CDC guidance on a shelter is something like 168-square-feet per person,” which he said, “turns the entire concept of sheltering on its ear” because the previous model was to “have a place that’s relatively safe and is climate controlled and indoors, and let’s put as many people inside as possible.”

“We can’t responsibly do that,” he told city council members during a Dec. 2 meeting.

In response to these issues, the city has sunk the majority of this line item’s funding into acquiring the land for the Nevada Cares Campus and developing improvements on it—a total of $8.1 million.

But funding in this “bucket” has also gone to other purposes, including bolstering the Downtown Reno Business Improvement District’s (BID) Reno Ambassadors program—and to homeless camp cleanups conducted by Reno police.

According to Shaver, $300,000 has gone to camp cleanups, $281,600 to the BID and $20,760 to the Karma Box program run by local activist Grant Denton. An additional $1 million went toward the temporary tent structure that was erected earlier this year near the site of the future Nevada Cares Campus.

Reno Police launched an early morning cleanup of a homeless encampment in downtown Reno on June 3, 2020. Image: Isaac Hoops

5. Residential relief—$2,038,939 of $3,300,000 spent  

The money in this “bucket” of funding has been used by the Reno Housing Authority  to help those who’ve lost their jobs stay in their homes. While there is more than $1 million left in the fund, Shaver told city council members the entire amount would be used by the CRF spending deadline.

“There is a little bit of a bottleneck there because RHA has more money to give out than they have people to process claims for that money, if that makes sense,” Shaver said.

Also included under this line item is a little more than $500,000 for a weekly motel relief program, which was started in early September and has since been used to assist “motel owners who have experienced unpaid rents on occupied units during Nevada’s eviction moratorium.”

Motel owners are limited to receiving three months of assistance at $150 per week per unit.

6. Business impact relief—$5,697,297 of $6,200,000 spent  

Reno has allocated nearly $5.7 million toward providing relief to small businesses struggling under COVID-19 restrictions, including more than $2.1 million dedicated to minority-owned and women-owned businesses.

Two different business grant programs—one for women and minorities, the other for small businesses in general that could demonstrate at least a 30% drop in business—were administered by local startup Audacity Institute, which won a request for proposal bid with the city.

Citizens criticized the 10% fee taken by Audacity to administer the first $1 million program for women and minority-owned businesses, leading the city of Reno to add an additional $100,000 to that pot and recommendations from council to work with Audacity to lower administrative fees on future rounds of funding.

From this “bucket,” the city also doled out $300,000 to local arts organizations, $50,000 to local marketing and film production agencies for an advertising campaign to promote local businesses and $15,000 to an economic recovery study conducted by the University of Nevada, Reno.

“Council also, you know, wanted to lay down a marker with arts and the artists,” Shaver said. “There was this real emphasis when we were crafting these programs on the things that make Reno cool and interesting. So, council really prioritized arts and artists to the tune of about a quarter million dollars. And those were granted through local arts nonprofits to sort of turn around and give to artists who could demonstrate a loss.”

CARES Act funding allowed Catholic Charities to expand services beyond the weekly food pantry boxes.
CARES Act funding allowed Catholic Charities to expand services beyond the weekly food pantry boxes. Image: CCNN

7. Food insecurity—$1,020,000 of $1,250,000 spent  

The City of Reno has spent just over $1 million on addressing food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Programs that have received funds from the city include the Boys and Girls Club of Truckee Meadows, Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada, the Food Bank of Northern Nevada, UNR’s Pack Provisions food pantry, the Washoe County School District, Soulful Seeds, the Reno Housing Authority, Helping Hands with Open Hearts and the High Fives (Feed our Heroes) Foundation.

The city has close to another $500,000 to distribute or reallocate from this “bucket.”

While city officials, including Shaver in his Dec. 2 presentation to the council, have said, “mental health response has been a huge priority,” Reno had only spent a little more than half of the money it allocated to the purpose—the bulk of it on creating a deal with online therapy service Talkspace.

The city set aside about $1.3 million for the Talkspace deal, noting that all 200,000-plus Reno residents could take advantage of the program and it would not change the price tag for implementing it. Shaver told council members it was expected that some 1,300 City of Reno employees would benefit from using Talkspace.

This Is Reno inquired recently as to the expected rollout date for Talkspace services to become available to Renoites and was told via email, “The initial launch—for Reno police and city workers—began earlier this morning, with rollout to the rest of the city continuing through early January.”

However, the sign-up page for Talkspace is now available for all Reno residents. It can be accessed here.

During his Dec. 2 presentation to the city council, Shaver said city staff has continued to work to see how remaining funds might be allocated through local mental health service providers.

9. Enforcement and communication—$1,100,000 of $1,500,000 spent  

“There’s no way to just ‘enforce’ yourself out of COVID. Nor is there a way to just to sort of communicate yourself through this problem. They are two approaches to address the same thing,” Shaver said of the city’s spending in this “bucket.”

The city, he noted, is continuing to work with the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority to identify possible communications campaigns, like the city’s “Mask On, Move On” campaign.

Money has also been spent on communications campaigns geared toward the Hispanic community, seniors, businesses and college students, as well as toward COVID-19 code enforcement.

The city has also dedicated some $100,000 of these funds to pop-up and remote testing facilities.

10. COVID tracing, measurement, prevention, and research—$1,100,000 of $1,200,000 spent  

About $1 million of this “bucket” of funding went to UNR’s wastewater study to identify COVID-19 levels in the community. The City of Reno’s contribution paid for part of the study. Washoe County and the City of Sparks are also responsible for a portion of the costs.

The other priorities financed were the Truckee Meadows COVID Risk Meter, at $42,467.59—and $55,000 for a mobile vaccination unit for the Reno Fire Department.

11. Parks enhancements and programming grants—$1,140,000 of $1,350,000 spent 

Reno has dedicated just over $1 million to this “bucket.” These funds have gone to local nonprofits that provide outdoor, socially distanced programs, as well as projects like providing a dry chemical solution for public pools that is deemed more effective at killing off things like the coronavirus.

It has also been spent on efforts like wrapping some 170 trees lining Virginia Street in Midtown with clear Christmas lights and other holiday staples like the city’s menorah and Christmas tree.

The City of Reno’s Menorah lighting in December 2020. Image: Eric Marks

12. Remote education relief—$2,763,849 of $3,000,000 spent 

The vast majority of this funding—nearly $2.5 million went to the Washoe County School District to pay for nearly 5,500 internet ready mobile devices for students, most of whom are currently on full-distance learning.

Another $264,000 was allocated to childcare through the Children’s Cabinet.

What’s next? 

The new coronavirus relief bill came as millions of Americans were facing the possibility of their unemployment benefits expiring right after Christmas. Now, these people can expect both a continuation of their state benefits as well as an additional $300 per week benefit from the federal government—at least through March.

Individual adults should expect one-time, $600 checks from the federal government at some point in the coming months. Small businesses are also expected to receive additional relief.

Additionally, in Nevada, Governor Steve Sisolak has extended an eviction moratorium through March. Eviction moratoriums throughout the state have been set to expire multiple times but have been extended through the governor’s mandates and guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Nonetheless, tenants who receive this reprieve have been and will continue to be responsible for back payments on their residences when the new moratorium expires.

However, the new relief bill does not contain additional CRF funding for local governments—though it has loosened the timeframe under which CRF recipients are expected to spend their funds until late 2021. Additional changes to the rules surrounding CRF spending are expected to be made by the incoming Biden Administration. This will provide local governments like the City of Reno, City of Sparks and Washoe County with some leeway in deciding how to spend any of their remaining money.

At the City of Reno, Shaver said he’s proud of the work that’s been done.

“In our whole organization, there’s nobody whose job it is to do any of this,” he said. “So, when it comes to things like business relief or our enforcement of COVID regulations or the mental health response, these sorts of things, I don’t have a guy who does that… Teams of people have tasked themselves from normal city work and have really added dozens of hours of work every week to help get this done. And the input and feedback we’ve seen from the community has been tremendous. The council continues to give us great direction and a great vision.”

Disclosure: This Is Reno received CARES Act funds through the City of Reno to advertise COVID-19 prevention and mitigation as part of the “Mask On, Move On” campaign.

Update: Clarification was provided on the $50,000 allocated toward advertising. The story originally labeled this as a Yelp campaign. Michael Tragash, local Yelp community manager, volunteered his time to help with the campaign. The funds were not provided to Yelp, but rather to local businesses to promote other local businesses on the site.

Jeri Chadwell
Jeri Chadwellhttp://thisisreno.com
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.