COVID’s gone, but millions in relief bucks aren’t - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

COVID’s gone, but millions in relief bucks aren’t

February 27th, 2023 SanTan Sun News
COVID’s gone, but millions in relief bucks aren’t

By Ken Sain
Managing Editor

Most Americans look at the COVID-19 pandemic a lot differently today than when it first arrived as those early months were filled with unknowns as fears for the economy grew with business shutdowns.

Some of those fears were based in reality. The unemployment rate reached 14.7% in April 2020, the highest it has gone since the Great Depression. The Gross Domestic Product dropped by 32% during that second quarter of 2020.

So, the federal government responded by throwing money at the problem.

A lot of money.

About $5 trillion was shipped to individuals, businesses, schools and local governments to help them overcome the economic fallout of COVID-19.

The money was approved with mostly bipartisan support and it did help. The COVID-19 recession was the shortest in U.S. history, lasting two months, March-April, 2020.

Chandler received its share of that money – and still has millions of it in the bank.

City officials said they received just under $100 million in COVID funds and have yet to spend $46.8 million.

Chandler Unified School District got about $83 million and has not spent over $31.5 million, according to a recent report from the Arizona Auditor General.

“We did not have a lot of the technologies in place for our employees to work mobile, for the security that you need … for a change that large, and also just communicating with the public through WebEx and Zoom and all the different methods,” said city Chief Financial Officer Dawn Lang.

“So it was all hands on deck with our technology team. And it really took a lot of the funds themselves to get us where we needed to be, and it was a pretty speedy process.”

The information technology department received $10.8 million to make the city’s website more mobile-friendly and to beef up security so employees could work safely from home.

Lang said it took about a year for the city to be fully ready for remote work and helping citizens connect from their mobile devices.

“It was a pretty amazing undertaking, we did have to bring in quite a few contractors to help us get there as well,” Lang said.

Most of the money, more than $36 million, went to the city’s Housing Department.

It was intended to help those who were most impacted by the pandemic. There were also funds to help pay for utilities, get food to senior citizens and provide emergency shelter.

The city also spent $500,000 on personal protection equipment and another $250,000 to establish four mobile hotspots to help CUSD students connect to the internet to facilitate their remote learning.

First responders did not get a lot of direct funds from the government.

However, the money freed up by those funds allowed the city to spend about $4.8 million on its police and firefighters in addition to state and federal grants totaling another $814,282.

But not all of the money was used strictly on pandemic-related issues.

The city manager’s office spent $50,000 of the funds to promote events for the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office. The Economic Development office spent nearly $500,000 on tourism recovery.

The city decided to switch out its street lights to LED to generate ongoing savings. That cost nearly $11.2 million, with about $5.2 million coming from pandemic-relief money. The rest was paid through the city’s own General Fund, but was possible because staffing costs were covered by federal COVID funds.

The non-housing money came to the city from two sources.

The first and easiest for the city to deal with came from the state AZCares grants. That amounted to just under $30 million. That is money the federal government gave to the states and let them decide how to distribute it.

The money that came directly from the federal government itself was part of the American Rescue Plan Act, and it required a lot more bookkeeping and had restrictions on how it could be used. The city received more than $34.5 million of those funds.

There were additional federal funds available for housing that required a lot of staff time to track every dollar and ensure spending complied with the restrictions.

“Were we prepared for it? No,” Lang said. “Have we been able to handle it? Yes.”

One of the allowed uses of those dollars was to reward employees for exceptional performances during the pandemic. That led to those employees being given a one-time $3,000 bonus.

Lang said the city also gave some of the money to nonprofits that worked directly with the people most impacted by the pandemic.

“If you’re asking on the nonprofit side, I think it was a tremendous help,” Lang said. “Nonprofits serve our most vulnerable in our community, so their need actually did increase substantially.

“So people who were on the fringes and either maybe lost a service industry job, they weren’t bringing in as much income and so that now they needed food boxes, they needed rental assistance, they needed utility assistance. So I think, for nonprofits, it really helped.”

There’s still a lot of money left to spend.

One major project where work has not started is $4 million for Gazelle Park in the Galveston neighborhood. That money will go toward improvements to the park’s storm drainage system.

Lang said there was never any serious talk of laying off city employees.

“The biggest amount of money in my area that’s been spent, it was on rent and utilities, and that came half from the Cares Act. We anticipate that we’ll get through maybe April of this year, before we’re completely out of the rent and utility assistance that we’ve been able to provide.

“This money has either kept people in their homes, or is continuing to keep people in their homes. And I think when it’s gone, the eviction rate will be even higher. I think what’s on the horizon is a realization that we need some sort of money for this purpose ongoing.”