Facing a Dec. 30 deadline — and a pandemic likely to extend well into 2021 — Maryland county leaders are asking for more time to spend federal coronavirus relief money.
The executives say they’re thinking about the combination of a COVID-19 resurgence and the regular flu season as well as the continuing health and economic problems their constituents and businesses could face next year.
“I’ve just been trying to pace it," said Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, who is considering a second round of business aid. “If it’s a bad winter, we thought it might be good to give the businesses another shot in the arm in January or February.”
But with additional federal coronavirus relief stalled in Congress, counties recognize time is running out to spend the roughly $240 million they have remaining from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed in March. The latest reminders came this week and last from Gov. Larry Hogan and State Budget Secretary David Brinkley.
Brinkley, during a virtual meeting Wednesday afternoon, said the state was exploring seizing any unspent money to “repurpose” it for state matters.
“We’re now trying to follow up ... to find out where they are in that spending process and how much, if anything, they have left or where are they going to spend it," Brinkley said. "Why? Because we want to try to get it back so we can recycle it. My mission, my goal is for us not to leave a dollar on the table by the deadline, which is Dec. 30.”
A spokesman from Hogan’s office confirmed that the state may seek to recoup the unspent funds, saying it has the authority from Congress to do so.
After announcing a $250 million disbursement from the state’s Rainy Day account to fund a series of relief programs meant to bolster the economy during the coronavirus pandemic, Hogan said last week that counties should consider using some of their federal money to match state efforts. Hogan, a Republican, said about two-thirds of the money distributed to 19 of Maryland’s 24 counties remains unspent.
“We’re disappointed that many counties have not yet allocated the bulk of the assistance funding, which has already been provided to them in order to help citizens and small businesses in their communities,” said Hogan, adding that the money is required to be spent by the end of calendar year, or it must be returned to the U.S. Treasury. “Us trying to process all those things and knowing who’s the business most in need, of this main street in this small town — they have a better idea and can get it out quicker.”
The governor repeated his concerns Tuesday about local governments being slow to spend federal aid. He said on WBAL radio that hundreds of millions in CARES Act money that’s in the hands of local governments remains unspent as the deadline approaches.
“We don’t know exactly what’s going on with them,” Hogan said. “We need to get that [money] out there where it can do the most good in the community … There’s a lot of people that need help.”
Hogan’s comments come as some national organizations and federal officials push for more time to use the aid. In late July, members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced the Leveraging Options for Counties and Localities (LOCAL) Act, which would defer the spending deadline from Dec. 30, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2021.
“The strict deadline does not allow counties to plan for future costs in 2021 and beyond,” the National Association of Counties said in a recent statement regarding the LOCAL Act. Delays in issuing rules for the money and uncertainty about the pandemic "makes it difficult for [coronavirus relief fund] recipients to meet the December deadline.”
Some jurisdiction heads in Maryland said they would benefit from more time to allocate CARES Act funds, especially as the pandemic continues and the financing needs change.
“Part of me would hope on the medical side they extend the deadline beyond December 31, because we still don’t know how bad winter is going to be,” Glassman said.
Glassman, a Republican, said even though the counties technically have until the end of the year, under the current deadline the coronavirus money must be spent by the end of November for accounting, auditing and processing purposes.
Harford received about $45 million in federal relief funding, according to the latest state figures. So far, it has spent about half of it. Glassman said the county will be able to spend its entire allotment.
Roughly $11.1 million has been used for coronavirus-related expenses such as personal protective equipment. The rest, about $9.3 million, has gone to businesses and farms. At the beginning of October, Glassman announced that Harford would begin offering $10,000 grants to restaurants affected by COVID-19 to help maintain operations through the winter months.
More than 200 restaurants have applied for the grants thus far, he said.
One restaurant, Forest Hill’s family-owned and operated Wargo’s Restaurant & Tavern, has used previous funds for payroll needs. Owner Brenda Wargo said though the restaurant could benefit from more money now, saving it for later would be “a huge help” as well.
“Our employees have bills, they have young families, and the Christmas holiday is coming,” Wargo said.
Still, it’s unknown what other needs will arise in the coming weeks and months in all individual counties, especially as cases around the country spike and businesses face unprecedented challenges to stay afloat.
“We do have concerns about COVID-expenses occurring after December 31,” wrote Kim Moses, spokeswoman for Worcester County, in an email.
Home to Ocean City, Worcester is on track to spend all its aid by year’s end, she added, with 50% going toward business assistance grants.
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, a Democrat, echoed others in seeking an extension.
“I join fellow county executives and local leaders around this state and nation who are requesting an extension of the Dec. 30 deadline to ensure this money is being allocated as effectively and efficiently as possible,” Ball said in a statement.
He added that despite “delays” in receiving its allocation from the state, Howard’s prepared to spend the funds by Dec. 30. Howard, which has a population under 500,000 and qualifies as one of Maryland’s smaller counties, did not receive its $56.8 million in CARES funds until mid-June.
Jurisdictions have varied in how they use CARES Act funds. In Carroll County, the board of commissioners plans to disperse the $14.7 million in funds among fire companies, the humane society and the library. In Anne Arundel County, Democratic County Executive Steuart Pittman has highlighted grief counseling, water bill relief and food service as CARES priorities. And in Baltimore, some of the $103 million in funds have gone toward rent relief for tenants struggling with rent as well as to purchase personal protective gear and homelessness services.
The city faces a multi-million dollar budget deficit due to the coronavirus, and officials have expressed frustration with some of the CARES Act guidelines, which do not allow for jurisdictions to fill revenue holes. The act split $150 billion among all 50 states, mandating that the funds go toward necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency that were not accounted for in the budget and were incurred since March 1.
Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, as well as Baltimore City, received their CARES Act funds directly from the U.S. Treasury and report their spending to the federal government. They received their funds first and in larger amounts compared to smaller jurisdictions.
In doling out the $250 million and expressing urgency for local jurisdictions to pick up the pace of their spending, Hogan cited the gridlock in Washington and called on federal lawmakers to “stop playing politics.”
Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, said in a statement that Senate Republicans have stalled the latest COVID-19 relief bill with additional federal resources and much-needed flexibility for those funds previously provided. He said he would continue to lobby for the House-passed HEROES Act.
“Our communities are in dire need ... so that they can pay frontline responders, support our local schools, provide eviction and rental assistance, and more,” Van Hollen said. “I will continue to fight to pass these urgent measures in the weeks ahead.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.