August 23, 2020 by Barry Eberling
Napa County will divide its $14.2 million in CARES Act money by spending $12.2 million for its governmental COVID-19-related expenses and making $2 million available for community pandemic recovery efforts.
That raised the question of whether Napa County government is taking too much for itself. Advocates for child care and rental assistance pleaded their cases, with their requests clearly outstripping that $2 million available.
But county officials said the county needs to be on good financial footing to continue a pandemic response that could last for months to come. The county does such tasks as contact tracing for COVID-19 cases and providing quarantine shelter for the needy.
CARES is the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security package passed by Congress. The Board of Supervisors approved a staff-recommended expenditure plan earlier this month.
“This is a tough one,” Supervisor Ryan Gregory said. “We heard from a lot of people. It puts such a human face on what we’re dealing with in our community.”
Faces such as Jacqueline Wisniewski’s. She sobbed during public comments as she told supervisors about efforts to keep her Soaring Wing preschool and child care business running during the pandemic.
“Child care in Napa needs funds to stay open and to reopen,” she said. “We are essential to the economy … parents need us so they can go back to work to support their families.”
Cece Woods said her Browns Valley Preschool is licensed for 40 children, but now has 12 to 20 children a day. Meanwhile, the enterprise faces rising costs for pandemic-related cleaning.
“I’m relying on my credit cards and loans to stay open,” Woods told supervisors.
Whether all of the child care in Napa County survives to serve a post-COVID-19 world remains to be seen. Erika Lubensky, executive director of Community Resources for Children, said there is one licensed slot for every four children who need the care.
“Napa County cannot afford to lose any more child care,” she said, listing nurses, winery workers, grocery store workers, restaurant workers and others among those who cannot work from home.
Julia DeNatale of Napa Valley Community Foundation said the community response needs more than $2 million.
The foundation and its partners are on pace to distribute $3 million in rental assistance for the pandemic by next month. They’ll probably need to spend another $1.5 million to $3 million by year’s end, she said.
Some speakers wanted more time to understand such things as the $7.6 million in CARES Act money that the county wants to spend on its personnel for the COVID-19 response. That response included shifting workers from other duties to work on the pandemic.
The question is whether the county would use CARES Act money to pay for these redirected COVID-19 workers who are already accounted for in the county budget. That would, in effect, generate a surplus.
There will be no such surplus, county Assistant County Executive Officer Mary Booher said.
CARES Act money can pay for overtime and extra help. Also, she said, redirecting employees from other areas to the pandemic response costs the county revenues these employees would otherwise generate, such as employees who have part of their salaries paid for by the state.
Using $12.2 million in CARES Act money will help the county replenish $7.1 million it took from its $30 million emergency reserve fund for the pandemic response. The reserve is money that can be used in cases of fires, floods and other disasters.
“The county needs a reserve just like any family has a rainy day fund,” County Executive Officer Minh Tran said.
Without a reserve, the county could face a fiscal emergency in the event of natural disasters, Tran said. He mentioned the worst-case prospect of bankruptcy.
Tran also mentioned the county earlier this year upped its annual community grant program from $1.1 million to $2.1 million to help deal with the COVID-19 response. It divided the money among 15 groups.
A Napa County report estimates county government will top $27 million in COVID-19-related expenses through December. That includes personnel costs associated with testing, contact tracing and disease surveillance, as well as paying sick leave, paying shelter costs, buying laptops so county workers can telecommute and buying personal protective equipment.
The county proposes to pay for such expenses with $12.2 million from the CARES Act, $5.1 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency money, $9.6 million in general fund money and $367,000 from other sources.
CARES Act money must be spent by Dec. 30, Booher said.
“The pandemic will not miraculously disappear on Dec. 30,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure we’re well-positioned to continue the response well beyond that.”
The county had proposed to divide up the $2 million allocated for community recovery support in buckets of $500,000 each going to economic support, child care, social safety net and housing rental assistance. But that might not be final outcome.
Whatever buckets the money eventually goes to, it will likely leave various parties in the community asking for more.
“There’s no way we’re ever going to be able to fund all of the needs that are present,” Supervisor Belia Ramos said.