Facing a year-end deadline to spend $544 million in federal coronavirus relief money, County of Orange officials still have yet to publicly release spending details about the vast majority of relief funds they received in April.
The lack of information about how CARES Act relief money has been spent – at both the local and state level – is prompting calls for more openness.
“We think there should be complete transparency – much more transparency than what we’ve seen with these funds,” said Susan Shelley, vice president of communications at the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, one of the largest taxpayer advocacy groups in California.
Shelley, who is critical of Orange County, LA County and Gov. Newsom on scant accounting, said there continues to be little transparency about the relief spending. She specifically called out Orange County over a $10 million operating subsidy the county approved for buying a hotel in Stanton for homeless housing.
“It’s just not been very transparent,” Shelley said.
To date, Orange County officials have only released details about how part of $75 million out of the total $544 million was distributed by county supervisors to local businesses and nonprofits.
Of that funding, Supervisor Lisa Barlett has the most complete accounting of funds spent ($14.5 million out of $15 million).
For other supervisors, like Andrew Do and Doug Chaffee, the accounting is more complicated to figure out, spread out between a county website and a separate document provided to Voice of OC through a public records request.
Two other supervisors that chose to distribute funds through local cities in their district – Don Wagner and Michelle Steel – to date have the least complete accounting in county records that have been disclosed.
For the rest of the spending, county officials so far have only offered general summaries in response to requests from Voice of OC.
Since receiving the federal CARES Act funds in April, county officials say they have used it to pay for coronavirus testing for the public, motels for homeless people, small business grants, and costs at county departments like the Health Care Agency and Sheriff’s Department.
For example, a little over $87 million in the pandemic relief funds were spent on Sheriff’s Department costs by the end of October, officials said. That’s covered costs ranging from public safety payroll, to adding shields and barriers for social distancing at facilities, to buying cold meals for inmates to allow social distancing, according to a county spokeswoman.
Now – with coronavirus hospitalizations spiking to their highest level of the pandemic – the relief funds are largely spent, facing a Dec. 30 deadline under federal law.
After that point, county officials plan to cover testing costs through March out of the county’s own general fund, but note those revenues have taken a hit from the economic slowdown.
“Our plan is to continue the testing program for at least the first quarter of the new year,” county CEO Frank Kim told Voice of OC. “We need funding since these costs will be supported by general funds which are already impacted and at levels less than what departments need to maintain current service levels.”
OC officials have been talking with county associations at the state and federal level “to advocate for federal stimulus funding to support testing and other safety net programs,” Kim added.
As officials seek more stimulus funds, officials have not yet detailed specifically how most of the existing CARES Act funds were spent.
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.
In response, county spokespeople provided four pages last month listing broad categories of spending – like “Public Health Expenses” and “Administrative Expenses” – without specifics on who received most of the funds.
That basic summary included a list of cities that received funding to distribute to others, but not which businesses or contractors ultimately received that money.
The records showed that from July through September, the biggest spending category was nearly $7 million for “Medical Expenses,” with no further explanation provided in the documents.
The second biggest was just over $4 million for “Payroll for Public Health and Safety Employees,” also with no further explanation.
Under the CARES Act, the relief money can only be used for “necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency” from Covid-19 from March 1 through Dec. 30 of this year, and that were not already in the county’s budget.
Late Monday night, after questioning from Voice of OC and at the deadline for their public records extension, county officials released spending records for two districts out of five. (Each supervisor allocated $15 million of the CARES Act money within their district.)
For Supervisor Michelle Steel’s District 2, they released a record showing the businesses and nonprofits that received 2 percent of the money she distributed to her district. They include four businesses – including a dentist office and gas station – and 10 nonprofits.
For Supervisor Lisa Bartlett’s 5th District, the county provided a much more detailed accounting that totaled nearly all of the $15 million she allocated to businesses and nonprofits in her district. The roughly 1,500 recipients range from barber shops to restaurants to art galleries.
It turns out that most of the information released as part of the public records request has already been published on the county’s One-Stop Centers website.
Two Orange County supervisors have started publicly asking questions about where the overall CARES Act money has gone and how much is left.
“I was hoping we can get some at least, thumbnail accounting of where that is,” Supervisor Doug Chaffee said of the CARES Act money in a question to county CEO Frank Kim at the Board of Supervisors meeting last Tuesday.
“Are we able to spend it all by the end of the year? Has it got places to go?” Chaffee continued. “What is kind of [the] status of the CARES Act money we’ve received?”
In response, Kim promised to prepare a memo about it for supervisors, which had not been released publicly as of Monday.
“We can absolutely provide you with a memo identifying how we’ve allocated the funds,” Kim told Chaffee.
He emphasized there continues to be much greater need for funding than what is available.
“At this time we do know that we have unreimbursed costs throughout the county, in terms of public health and all the other activities the staff are engaged in,” Kim said.
“So we have more costs than we have CARES Act funding.”
A second supervisor, responding to an inquiry from Voice of OC, said Monday she’s asked for an accounting of where all $554 million of the relief money is going.
“I have requested a complete breakdown of the CARES Act money and how it was allocated,” said Bartlett, whose district’s $15 million has the most complete accounting provided by the county so far.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.