When Congress passed a major emergency relief bill this spring, Salt Lake County found itself with a lot of money and not much time to spend it.
Not that there wasn’t need, especially as COVID-19 infections spiked. Mayor Jenny Wilson has praised her staff for directing the funds where they would do the most good. The county set up testing centers and quarantine facilities. The county Health Department hired an army of contact tracers. Millions of dollars went to help schools and small businesses. The mayor directed the biggest chunk of the county’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds — $64 million — directly to the county’s 23 municipalities.
But at least one city is claiming it got stiffed. And it is blaming Wilson.
“She chose to withhold more money from us, for whatever her reasons are, and our argument is that’s not appropriate,” said West Valley City Manager Wayne Pyle.
West Valley City got $8 million in federal cash. It believes it deserved $12 million to be used on protective gear for city employees and other needs.
Most of Utah’s CARES funds went directly to the state, to be doled out to counties as it saw fit. Two counties, Salt Lake and Utah, had large enough populations that they received their share directly.
When Salt Lake County received its $204 million this spring, it followed the state’s formula and divvied out money based on city populations. The funds were to go out in three equal installments, Pyle said, also mirroring how state officials decided to disperse the federal funds to other counties.
On Dec. 4, however, Pyle and Assistant City Manager Nicole Cottle said the mayor’s office told them the third installment wasn’t coming.
That left the city feeling shortchanged, receiving only two-thirds of what they felt was promised.
“We have cooperated very closely with these guys in terms of anything they wanted to do,” Pyle said. “Two weeks ago, we were still under the impression that we would be asking for and getting that [final] tranche. Then two weeks ago, all of a sudden it was, ‘There will be no third tranche, end of story.’”
All CARES dollars came with a Dec. 30 spending deadline. Anything left over would go back to the federal government. Despite complaints and calls made to the county, that deadline means all the county’s funds have been assigned and West Valley City has run out of options.
“To have this rug yanked out from under us a month before the end of the year is very frustrating,” Pyle said.
The pandemic has hit West Valley City particularly hard. It accounts for more than 15% of Salt Lake County’s coronavirus cases, despite making up 11.8% of the population. Only Salt Lake City has had more COVID-19 infections or coronavirus-related deaths, but West Valley City has had the most hospitalizations. West Valley City also has a large population of Hispanic, Latino and Pacific Islander residents, who have been disproportionately impacted by the virus.
In an interview, Wilson and her staff said the county never promised cities they’d receive a third disbursement of CARES money.
“We said to them sometime around July that we would consider an additional amount, but we needed to make sure our priorities were funded prior to that third distribution,” Wilson said.
Back then, the mayor said, “our cases were manageable. Then things got a lot worse and a lot more expensive” when a surge of infections hit in the fall.
The county also took advantage of guidance from the federal government that they could use the CARES Act money to pay public safety employees, then use the budget savings to fund the vaccine efforts in 2021
Wilson added that the county has also directed a large proportion of its pandemic response at West Valley City. It used $1.6 million to transform the city’s Maverik Center into a place people could get coronavirus tests. The county translated educational materials about the pandemic and underwent outreach efforts in multiple languages to reach the city’s diverse population as well.
“West Valley has been on my radar since Day One with this health emergency and will continue to be until the bitter end,” Wilson said. “I need West Valley to be a partner with me.”
Darrin Casper, the county’s deputy mayor of finance and administration, said he personally met with West Valley City officials in late August to inform them that no third installment of CARES funding would come.
“They were put on notice then,” he said.
Cottle, the assistant city manager, confirmed the August meeting with Casper, but said it was actually about the city not receiving its second round of funding, not the third.
They city did get its second round of CARES money after the August meeting, Cottle said, on Oct. 15.
But Wilson and Casper said the message of “no third round of funding” has been repeated at the county’s regular Friday meetings with municipalities for weeks. Confusion might have come after the county put the cities on notice that they might receive last-minute dollars if the county couldn’t spend it all before the Dec. 30 deadline, the county officials said, but those funds were not guaranteed.
“I think other cities would verify that as well,” Wilson added.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall provided a statement by text message.
“We appreciate the county’s emphasis on ensuring that we have the resources for rolling out a vaccination plan,” she wrote. “We also feel strongly that we need dollars now for economic recovery, before the health consequences are worsened by an even deeper economic crisis.”
Mendenhall’s office did not respond to a question clarifying whether the statement meant she wanted a third round of CARES funding for Salt Lake City.
Reached by phone, Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said he felt the county has been “fair and prudent” with its pandemic funds. In addition to $3.6 million in direct CARES distribution, Wilson directed $150,000 to set up a temporary overflow homeless shelter in Millcreek.
“I do understand why West Valley has raised the most noise about this, [but] they haven’t articulated what they would spend that money on. If they do that, I say fine, give them money,” Silvestrini said. “I don’t think we should give out the money just to give out the money.”
Pyle countered that West Valley City has plenty of ongoing pandemic costs.
“Part of our frustration, a lot of these expenditures we are making is so we can comply with the mayor’s declarations,” which, Pyle added, the city supports. “We’re constantly opening, shutting, restricting, closing, preparing for, buying equipment for, cleaning and all those related expenses we wouldn’t have in a year we’re operating as normal.”
He also acknowledged his vocal complaints may have irked the mayor’s office, but that he owes it to West Valley City residents to track down more funding.
“The thing that irritates me about this is it’s not that hard. It didn’t have to be hard like this,” Pyle said. “There’s really no need for this controversy.”