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Lucas Presson

Lucas Presson is the assistant publisher of the Southeast Missourian.

Opinion

CARES Act funds to counties should be scrutinized

Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center medical director John Russell, right, discusses the county's coronavirus response protocols following Monday morning's COVID-19 media briefing with several county officials, including, from left, Presiding Commissioner Clint Tracy, Second District Commissioner Charlie Herbst, Office of Emergency Management director Mark Winkler and First District Commissioner Paul Koeper.
Jay Wolz

County governments in Missouri are receiving significant CARES Act funding to be used on coronavirus-related expenses.

Nearly $521 million is being distributed collectively to most Missouri counties, with an additional $173 million-plus going to St. Louis County and more than $122 million going to Jackson County.

Cape Girardeau County will receive $9.2 million. Scott County is set to receive nearly $4.4 million, and Perry and Bollinger Counties will receive $2.2 million and $1.4 million, respectively.

The Cape Girardeau County Commission voted this week to spend about $500,000 of its CARES Act funding on serological coronavirus testing -- also referred to antibody testing -- on 2% of the county's population (approximately 1,700 people).

The county's public health center announced Friday that individuals interested in study participation should complete an online survey at www.surveymonkey.com/r/GJQFKBD.

The tests will be processed by SoutheastHEALTH, which uses the FDA-approved tests. About 100 tests can be completed in an hour by the hospital.

Cape Girardeau County Presiding Commissioner Clint Tracy told me this week the goal in testing is to better understand how pervasive the virus is locally. And by all accounts, this is a good use of the funds. But that still leaves the county with about $8.7 million.

Tracy said these funds must be used on coronavirus-related expenses. Any public entity in the county will be able to apply for reimbursements, and the county is working on a process for how entities can apply.

Personal Protective Equipment purchased by public entities is considered a reimbursable expense. Budget shortfalls, on the other hand, are not.

Still, $9.2 million is a lot of money, and it's hard to conceive any government entity in the county -- even collectively -- would have spent that much on PPE or any other approved expenditure.

Tracy said in talking with the state treasurer it was explained that any unused funds at the end of the process are to be returned to the state. And most likely the funds would help offset unemployment claims.

He said if the state runs out of money for unemployment, it will borrow from the federal government. The additional unemployment benefits are covered by an unemployment tax paid by employers. So returning unused funds has the potential benefit of offsetting that additional cost to employers.

"So if that's the case, I mean, that benefits every business that pays unemployment tax, so I would think that makes a lot of sense," Tracy said.

Tracy added his biggest concern is being a good steward of the funds.

"If you don't have legitimate expenses, then you shouldn't be spending the money and shouldn't be afraid to give it back without getting into taxpayer money," he said.

Could the county stockpile supplies? Masks, for example.

"You know, you could, but at the same time ... it's one of those things where you want enough, but we don't want to be hoarding it either."

I certainly appreciate Tracy's candor about not being afraid to return unused funds and hope other elected officials around the state also operate in good faith.

At the same time, using the funds in ways that make sense, such as antibody testing, seems prudent and appropriate for how the funds were intended to be used.

The federal spending in response to the coronavirus is understandable, but it's still depressing to consider how much money, which our government doesn't have, is being spent. Deficit spending of today will have to be paid back. Hopefully local government leaders elsewhere have the same mentality as Tracy. And likewise, the state should be diligent in auditing how every dollar is spent.

Lucas Presson is assistant publisher of the Southeast Missourian.

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