Nette Stokes has spent the past few months helping parents bridge the child care gap that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic in Howard County.
When parents call Stokes, the executive director of the Just Living Advocacy nonprofit in Columbia, seeking assistance, she finds them a solution.
Throughout the pandemic, Just Living Advocacy has been working to ensure parents get and keep child care as they continue to work, a feat made easier by federal CARES Act funding Stokes received earlier this year.
“Child care is the backbone of the economic recovery from COVID-19,” said Stokes, 63, a resident of Elkridge. “Some of these hourly workers are not professionals who have the opportunity to work from home. They are on their feet, they are the forgotten workers, Walmart and Target workers. They are helping our lives be better through this COVID[-19] crisis.”
The funds Stokes received account for only a sliver of the $56.8 million in CARES Act funding Howard County received in mid-June. While these funds have been completely allocated, according to County Executive Calvin Ball, there’s an impending Dec. 30 federal deadline to spend the money or risk forfeiting it.
The county expects to spend the money by the end of the year, said Ball’s chief of staff Sameer Sidh, but as of Tuesday, Howard has only spent 36.3% of the county’s portion.
Before Stokes applied and received her CARES Act grant from the Howard County government, the money was part of the lump sum of $150 billion in federal emergency assistance sent to states and localities across the country.
The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act was signed into law on March 27 to support health-related costs and assist with salaries for emergency management and services dedicated to the pandemic. That includes the acquisition and distribution of supplies, expenses for public safety measures, communications and enforcement, and disinfection of public areas.
That definition has since diversified, encompassing new and broader challenges local governments have faced as the pandemic has worn on. Counties have assessed needs and made allocations accordingly, like when Ball announced $1.5 million in CARES Act funding to support nonprofits like Just Living Advocacy.
Sidh has been in charge of CARES Act funding and allocation efforts at the county level from the beginning. He planned and replanned how the county was going to spend millions of dollars in a matter of months.
“There are two overarching things we wanted to do with the money: address community evolving needs and ensure the continuity of government,” Sidh said.
The problem wasn’t the funds themselves but the timeline. Howard received its CARES Act funding five weeks after Maryland jurisdictions with populations over 500,000, according to Sidh.
Primary recipients of the relief funds, meaning jurisdictions with populations over 500,000, received their funding directly from the Department of Treasury, while sub-recipients, jurisdictions with populations under 500,000, like Howard County, received their funding from the state, according to Eryn Hurley, associate legislative director at the National Association of Counties. This drew out the process for smaller jurisdictions.
Hurley said some smaller jurisdictions in the country were left waiting until August to receive their funding, and, regardless of when they got it, the money still has to be spent by the Dec. 30 deadline.
According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, 171 counties, cities and towns surpass the 500,000 population requirement in the U.S. and got their funding directly. In Maryland, those included Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, as well as Baltimore City.
Howard County, with a population of just over 325,000 according to the U.S. Census Bureau, had CARES Act funding divided equally between the county health department, a state entity, and the Howard County government, each with $28.4 million to spend.
The health department decided it didn’t need its full portion, Sidh said, and gave $9 million back to the county, amounting to $37.4 million for the government to redirect toward other needs. Earlier this month, the health department gave the county government another $4 million of its allocation, bringing the county’s total to spend to $41.4 million.
Spending the funds
From first responder needs to technological difficulties, business grants and housing relief, the range of Howard County CARES Act allocations appears to span the majority of county departments.
“We’ve done the best job we possibly could. We budgeted out, based on where we thought there would be needs,” Sidh said. “We’ve had to adjust on the fly as we’ve seen different issues pop up in the community. We’ve paced spending to prepare for a second phase of the pandemic.”
Hurley described nationwide allocations as uncharted territory for jurisdictions. She said counties had to balance guidance from federal and state governments while avoiding having any funds taken back because of how they were being spent.
“Because this was evolving guidance, it was a bit difficult for counties to spend money that would be best to support their residents and communities,” Hurley said. “Since counties are on the front line of this pandemic, they are in every step of the process of mitigating with COVID-19. Counties have had a hard time deciding how they’re going to allocate the money in the most effective way.”
For Sidh and Howard’s allocations, that meant seeing where the biggest needs were and having allocations flexible enough to adapt to those needs.
One of the largest line items in the county allocations is $5.9 million to the school system. This included money for Chromebook laptops for students during virtual learning, safety and cleaning items for students and staff, technology devices for staff, meal support and unemployment costs.
Sidh said the goal of the large allocation was to help the school system offset $23 million in incurred costs due to COVID-19.
“What has been made more clear to me is that COVID-19 and the ongoing pandemic, while it has created a great deal of challenges, it has more so revealed fissures in our community and it has exacerbated already existing difficulties,” Ball said in an interview last month.
The Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services saw allocations of more than $7.1 million to purchase personal protective equipment supplies and provide overtime, according to Sidh. Allocations also include a little more than $2 million to the police department and just over $3.7 million for technological needs across county departments.
Some of those allocations are where the county is showing unspent money, according to an online dashboard the county launched last month to track CARES funding spending. For example, the police department has only spent $1.1 million of its $2 million and the fire department still has $4.3 million to spend. A large portion of the unspent money, $9 million, is earmarked for economic development, according to the dashboard.
Over the summer, the Economic Development Authority, through the county, distributed $5.7 million in grants to restaurants, retailers, farms, child care facilities, live venues and motels/hotels.
That’s how Martha Clark, owner of Clark’s Elioak Farm in Ellicott City, received her CARES Act funding.
With several components to the farm’s operation, Clark, 65, was left figuring out how to make her business work during the pandemic. Pasturing meat and selling it wouldn’t be terribly affected, nor would selling vegetables to friends and neighbors. However, Clark’s petting farm was traditionally a large profitable portion of the business and it was not conducive to pandemic restrictions, she said.
“[As the pandemic went on,] we continued to sell meat and sell vegetables and we continue to employ all of our full-time employees,” Clark said. “The animals need to be fed and the vegetables need to be planted.”
By the second week of June, Clark had reopened the petting farm after losing two-and-a-half months of income in the spring.
“We normally have a lot of school children coming in the fall. We normally have 20,000 kids come ... and, of course, none of that happened,” she said. “None of the spring tours happened, and we didn’t schedule any of the fall tours.”
As soon as Clark received her grant from the county, it went into the bank account to be equally dispersed among the pressing needs to keeping the farm running: staffing, electricity and cleaning supplies.
“[The funding] is essential; you can’t run a business if you don’t have money in your bank account,” Clark said. “If you’re not open, then that money is not in the bank account. So having that infusion of cash, no matter how small, allowed us to bridge the gap and get going.”
Sidh said, come Dec. 30, it’s possible the county’s CARES Act funding dashboard won’t reflect 100% spending of the federal funding, despite expecting to meet the firm deadline. The county manages grants on a reimbursement basis, which allows for accountability in a future audit, but also causes a delay in the dashboard system, according to Sidh.
“The counting takes a while to catch up,” he said. “The work of the government is corralling the money.”
The county expects to spend the money by the end of the year, according to Sidh, but that doesn’t make him any less concerned about the future.
The federal government has said if jurisdictions do not use their funds by Dec. 30, the money must be returned.
“We are laser-focused on expending all of our CARES [Act] funding by our deadline at the end of this month and ensuring that our most vulnerable residents do not fall through the cracks this winter as we continue to combat COVID-19 in our community,” Ball said in a statement Monday.
“The fact that we have a deadline that is at the end of this month but the needs of this pandemic are going to be felt through the winter and the spring is difficult,” Sidh said.
Hurley agreed, saying the National Association of Counties sent a letter to Congress earlier this month urging lawmakers to pass legislation to extend the deadline. “It would provide much-needed time to spend money as Congress debates the next [stimulus] package,” she said.
A coalition of attorneys general representing 43 states, including Maryland, and Washington, D.C., also sent a letter late last month, urging Congress to extend the deadline until the end of 2021, but there have been no decisions yet on that front.
Hurley and Sidh fear that bridge between the deadline and a possible next stimulus package.
“We’re actively working to make sure that, regardless of what the federal [government] does or doesn’t do, that we’re in the position to provide support to our county and county government,” Sidh said. “That could mean [reallocating] money internally or seeking different grant sources as well. That’s where our focus has been right now. If there’s no federal action, how can we continue to support our community after Dec. 30?”
Clark is hopeful that Hurley and Sidh’s pleas work and that more funding heads toward businesses like her farm.
“Small businesses, we all work very hard. We all try as hard as we can to keep our businesses open and to be an asset to our community, to provide a service or a product that our community needs and sometimes, especially in a time like this year with the pandemic, we need a little help to do that,” Clark said.
“And it’s really a good thing when the government recognizes that giving a hand to people who are working hard already to make it possible to do what they do is a really good thing.”