Orange County Reveals A Slice of How It Spent Federal Coronavirus Relief Money

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Outdoor dining in Downtown Santa Ana on June 25, 2020.

Orange County officials have publicly detailed how they’ve spent about 7% of the half-billion dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds the county obtained in April, while so far declining to reveal the rest.

The next month, county officials gave a general overview of categories of how they planned to spend the money, noting areas like PPEs, testing, homeless sheltering, public health in the jails or direct coronavirus public health response.

Voice of OC has been asking county officials since May for actual spending of that money, seeking a breakdown of exactly which businesses and individuals got the federal CARES Act money and how much.

So far, with not much luck.

As of this week, the only information provided in response has been a one-page overview of how $75 million of the $554 million in funds were spent. That basic summary listed which cities and programs received funding to distribute to others, but not which businesses or contractors ultimately received that money.

While county officials aren’t answering, it turns out details are available on who got $37 million of that spending. It’s been posted across multiple documents on the website of an employment agency the county oversees.

After Voice of OC noted that in an article Wednesday, a reader reached out to point out a county agency has had a webpage up for weeks that discloses a partial picture of where 7% of the money went.

A page on the Orange County One-Stop Centers website links to 17 separate PDF documents that name over 3,000 of businesses that received grants under programs set up by three of the five supervisors.

The money was distributed to local small businesses in grants of up to $10,000, under programs set up by supervisors Andrew Do, Lisa Bartlett, and Doug Chaffee and administered by the One-Stop centers.

Among those awarded $10,000 grants were restaurants, nail salons, churches, travel agencies, private schools, a bowling alley and a home Airbnb business.

Information was not available about which businesses received grants under the programs set up by supervisors Don Wagner and Michelle Steel, each of whom distributed $15 million to the cities in their district to then award to small businesses.

The county’s lead spokeswoman, Molly Nichelson, didn’t have an answer this week about which businesses received CARES Act funds.

“[We’re] working on your questions,” Nichelson said in an email on Tuesday.

By Wednesday evening, there were no new answers from county officials. Nichelson didn’t respond to questions asking if the online PDFs showing $37 million in spending were up to date, and why she hadn’t referred to them when asked before how the funds were spent.

The federal CARES Act money is meant to help cover emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic, but cannot be used by government to backfill drops in their tax revenue due to the economic slowdown.

When supervisors discussed their plans for the CARES Act money in the spring, there was a lot of discussion about how the funds should be put to use out in the community as fast as possible.

One of the organizations that’s been active in distributing county CARES Act funds is Arts Orange County, the regional arts council. The group published a report this month on how it distributed $1.1 million in relief funds to arts organizations – of which $500,000 was from the county CARES Act funds – and advocated for another $1.5 million in relief for arts groups that was distributed by other organizations.

Its report lists dozens of local arts groups the funds supporting, ranging from the OC Children’s Therapeutic Arts Center to the OC Film Fiesta to The Wooden Floor, a nonprofit that teaches dance to low-income students.

County supervisors authorized another $6 million in CARES Act spending on Tuesday.

Under a plan put forward by Do and Supervisor Don Wagner, supervisors allocated $1 million in CARES Act funds to help restaurants move their operations back outside during the winter. Restaurants can apply for $1,000 grants to help buy heaters and tents.

And under another proposal from Do and Supervisor Doug Chaffee, the board approved $5 million in CARES Act money for grants to child care centers throughout the county.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the dollar amounts for arts relief support.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].