Part two: Washoe County
This is the second in a three-part series examining how local governments spent federal Coronavirus Relief dollars. Read part one here.
Money provided to local governments as a part of the CARES Act
Among the programs established under the federal government’s $2.2 trillion CARES Act was the $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), designed to aid state and local governments. 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.
While the City of Reno received more than $46 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds distributed by the State of Nevada, Washoe County received only $20,254,818 and has managed to spend it all. The disparity in allocations is due to the smaller population of people living in unincorporated Washoe County.
Washoe County’s spending of its CRF funds fell into seven categories. This Is Reno looked at each of these categories.
1. Public Health Expenses—$7,496,780
The county spent nearly 40% of its CRF funds on public health costs, which Assistant County Manager Christine Vuletich said is a figure on par with the percentage of CRF funds delegated to this purpose by many other counties across the country.
Public health costs included communications and enforcement of health measures to the tune of just over a quarter million dollars. It also included nearly a quarter million in spending on medical and protective supplies (personal protective equipment, which fell under another line item, excluded) like sanitizing supplies, alcohol pads, germ shields and isopropyl alcohol.
More than $500,000 went to disinfecting public areas and county facilities, including courts, libraries and the Reno Events Center,which the county helped cover the costs of cleaning and operating (under this and another line item discussed later) as a temporary emergency shelter for the region’s homeless residents.
“We’ve all had to learn to be more flexible, more nimble and agile in our responses because it’s a dynamic situation.”
Other regional funding from this pot included nearly $750,000 dedicated toward Incident Command and call center services for the Regional Emergency Operations Center—as well as money for the wastewater study with the University of Nevada to track COVID-19 in the community. That study was sponsored jointly by the county, the City of Reno and the City of Sparks.
Another $878,519 went to cover the county’s costs surrounding other support for homeless residents, including hand sanitizer stations, storage containers, meals, security services and restroom rentals. Putting in additional port-a-potties around the Truckee Meadows was a priority for local governments, as people on the streets had few places to use the facilities once non-essential businesses were ordered closed.
The last area of spending in public safety was the rental and installation of about 60 trailers owned by emergency support services company ATCO to be put in reserve as possible quarantine quarters. This was done at a cost of $4,816,891. County officials decided to rent the trailers—which were temporarily being stored at the Alamo truck stop in Sparks, as well as others along USA Parkway—after having been used most recently by firefighters battling California’s Paradise Fire.
The trailers were then placed on land owned by Washoe County, and Truckee Meadows Water Authority, NV Energy and other utilitycompanies were paid to pipe in water, power and sewer.
The county never used the trailers before they were decommissioned in August. County spokesperson Bethany Drysdale explained them as “best thought of as an insurance policy that we’re grateful to never have had to use.”
2. Personal Protective Equipment—$1,884,384
This expense was simple. Washoe County dedicated nearly $2 million to supplying PPE, mostly for KN95 masks.
Most people are familiar with N95 masks. The two are quite similar. Both N95 masks and KN95 masks are made from multiple layers of synthetic material. Both filter out and capture 95% of tiny 0.3-micron particles in the air (hence the “95” in the names). The difference is that N95 masks are the U.S. standard while KN95 masks are the Chinese standard.
N95 masks must pass inspection and a certification process through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Companies making KN95 masks, on the other hand, can seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration for an emergency authorization for a foreign certification. Rolling Stone produced an in-depth article on these two types of masks for its lifestyle section in October.
3. COVID-19 Testing and Contact Tracing—$110,340
This is another simple expenditure from the county’s CRF funds. The money was spent on helping with the Washoe County Health District’s free COVID-19 testing at its drive-through location at the Reno-Sparks Livestock Events Center. Expenses includedtesting, coveralls, tent rental and traffic control measures.
Washoe County used additional non-CRF funds to cover the remaining costs of COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.
4. Payroll Expenses for Public Employees Dedicated to COVID-19—$7,662,218
This area represents the largest chunk of the county’s CRF funding at just over $150,000 more than was spent on public health expenses. It was used to cover paid leave for employees under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, as well as salaries and benefits for Health District employees, Human Services Agency employees and Washoe County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) employees.
The vast majority of it went to the Sheriff’s Office—$6,382,307. This Is Reno inquired as to why so much of the funds were needed by the WCSO, especially since the Sheriff’s Office proposed to charge the public $200/hour for bodycam footage, a request that Sheriff Darin Balaam asked the Washoe County Board of Commissioners to remove from its agenda after public outcry.
“Public safety and social services personnel costs for employees substantially dedicated to COVID-19 are eligible expenses for reimbursement under the CARES Act,” Vuletich said. “The Sheriff’s Office had to make changes to operations in the jail, in patrol and other areas to support the County’s COVID-19 emergency response costs from March through December 2020.
“To put the $6.4 million reimbursement from the CARES Act grant into context, it represents 4.9% of the County’s $131 million total annual personnel budget for public safety.”
5. Expenses to Facilitate Compliance with COVID-19 Measures—$1,947,048
Costs under this line item were varied and including facilitating distance learning, improving remote work capabilities for county employees, improving social distancing measures in the court buildings, nursing home assistance and money spent on the county jail, among other things.
Money was allocated to UNR’s Cooperative Extension programs, the Boys & Girls Club and the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum.
By far the largest expense under this line item was $1.34 million spent on renting a shower and decontamination booth for jail entry. Vuletich explained that due to COVID-19, people being booked into the jail must first be decontaminated. The jail still reported outbreaks among officers and inmates.
6. Economic Support – Small Business, Housing and Food Assistance—$1,131,650
Costs included in this line item fall into four categories: small business assistance, food programs, housing support and services for homeless people and vulnerable populations.
The county awarded $135,820 in small business grants and delivered $142,728 in food assistance for residents. Nearly $60,000 went to housing support efforts. But the largest expenditure was “care and mitigation services for homeless/vulnerable populations” at $795,441, which helped pay for food, water and emergency shelter services provided in partnership with the cities of Reno and Sparks.
7. Administration Expenses—$22,398
The final item under Washoe County’s CRF spending is its smallest. The county spent just over $22,000 on administrative costs associated with spending its CARES Act dollars through purchasing and accounting support.
Washoe County has spent its entire CRF allocation, but there remains work to be done to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Looking back on the county’s response to the virus and its spending of CRF money, Vuletich said she thinks there have been learning opportunities presented throughout the process.
“If nothing else, I think during this whole pandemic response—I think everybody whether you’re a businessperson, whether you’re operating government services, even on a personal level—we’ve all had to learn to be more flexible, more nimble and agile in our responses because it’s a dynamic situation,” she said, adding, “The county is very grateful to have received this grant. And I feel that it has been very helpful and put to good use within the community.”