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In 2020, Utah’s rural and midsize counties faced a nebulous public health crisis, a big infusion of federal cash, and not a lot of time to spend it. So they got creative.
When Congress quickly passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, a year ago, Utah’s rural and less urban counties suddenly found themselves with hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars that came with lengthy but vague restrictions. They had to work with the state to get their funds since they were too small to receive the money directly from Washington. And the state told them to spend it all by the end of November or risk losing what was left.
County governments got to work. Millions of dollars went to keeping local businesses afloat during mandated closures, according to spending data from each county obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune. Governments stockpiled masks, sanitizer, latex gloves and plexiglass barriers. They deployed meals to struggling families and isolated seniors.
A large portion of the funds went to cover payroll for law enforcement, public safety and other county employees redeployed to help keep the coronavirus in check.
But Utah’s smaller and more rural county governments also made investments that will continue to help their residents after the pandemic is over. They made more public services available online. They improved county-owned facilities, like jails and fairgrounds. They updated and upgraded technology.
“That’s what we decided to do with the money, use it for those projects that would benefit the whole,” said Commissioner Scott Bartholomew in Sanpete County, where some of the biggest payouts went to local businesses, ambulance associations and firefighting equipment. “We felt we used it for real good purposes and for the benefit of the people.”
The Governor’s Office of Budget and Management distributed $139.4 million to all of Utah’s counties except the two largest. Salt Lake and Utah counties received CARES dollars directly from the federal government. State fund managers allocated the money to local governments based on population size.
The caveat that came with the money was that it had to be spent on unforeseen expenses brought by the pandemic. It couldn’t be used to backfill a local government’s budget.
Clever uses of coronavirus relief cash
Davis and Weber counties received the lion’s share of funding, since they have some of the most urban populations as well as higher COVID-19 case counts. Both counties spent a significant amount of their funds on employee payroll, benefits and overtime.
More than 500 Davis County businesses received $7.8 million in grants. The county also steered $4.3 million to its school district, including $700,000 for school contact tracing.
Weber County granted $9.4 million of its CARES dollars to small businesses, $5.1 million to schools, $1 million to Weber State University and $759,000 to nonprofits helping those experiencing homelessness.
But smaller counties with fewer coronavirus infections had different needs. While it doesn’t appear that most counties interpreted the federal government’s spending guidance as loosely as Uintah County — which spent $500,000 on a tubing hill, claiming it “spread people out” and gave “them something to do outside” — many county governments came up with inventive ways to solve their own pandemic challenges.
Beaver County spent $3,700 on a drone to help the assessor’s office and building department inspect properties from a distance. The county also spent $16,500 on additional bleachers for the fairgrounds so spectators didn’t have to sit so close together.
Wayne County added permanent restrooms to its fairgrounds.
“Port-a-potties were being used,” said Clerk/Auditor Ryan Torgerson, “and we wanted to have a better facility for people to use with hands-free fixtures and just a more sanitary environment.”
Box Elder County upgraded its fairgrounds, too — a $51,000 digital sign that helped communicate the latest pandemic and mask mandate news to county residents. Another $87,000 went to remodeling the county courthouse.
“We operate out of a historic building,” said county Auditor Tom Kotter. “That money was used to remodel many of the areas where we interact with the public.”
One of Box Elder County’s largest CARES purchases was $240,000 for a house that will serve as a new home for the Children’s Justice Center. It’s currently crammed into a single office room within the Division of Child and Family Services, which makes social distancing nearly impossible.
“We’ve really had to change scheduling and limiting the individuals who can be here for an interview,” said Sterling Marx, director of the center. “Unfortunately, the pandemic only increased the amount of kids we’re seeing in these abusive situations, because they’re stuck at home.”
Even after the pandemic, Marx said, having a comforting house to visit and recount traumatic experiences instead of a busy office building will continue to be a huge benefit to the county’s kids and families.
“When a child experiences abuse, it’s the whole family. Parents are also secondary victims to that abuse,” he said. “So giving them a place where they can have privacy to feel those emotions, have it be a comfortable place where it’s not an office … that’s a big thing.”
CARES has also helped transform the ways people access county services and interact with their elected leaders. Counties invested in cameras and virtual meeting software to stream public meetings and allow residents to call in to comment.
“We put a screen and camera in the commission room that we never had before,” said Sanpete County’s Bartholomew, adding that the county will continue broadcasting its meetings.
Pre-pandemic, Summit County recorded only audio from its meetings and made it available later. County officials had resisted the idea of livestreaming meetings and allowing residents to call in to participate. Now they recognize the benefits.
“We’ve enjoyed having much more public interaction on topics because people can tune in and make comments ... during their time off or when they’re at work,” said county Manager Tom Fisher. “Those investments we’re making are going to be enduring.”
He said CARES also helped the county buy laptops, hot spots and software so employees can work from all over the county. Fisher said the county felt good about investing in technology — not only to create a safe working environment during the pandemic but also to enable the county to recruit top talent.
“We see that as a future workforce issue,” Fisher said. “We’ve all read about that, what the speculation is about how this is going to advance home-based work. But we’re already seeing situations where prospective employees are asking whether they can work remotely portions of a week, depending on the job.”
Across the board, counties large and small in Utah used at least some CARES dollars to improve their tech capabilities.
“We are currently doing inventory on upgrading all computers within Emery County departments to 2021 standards,” said Melany Weaver with the county attorney’s office.
“The webcams and other things have certainly allowed us (as a fairly remote county) to better interact with the state and other entities via conferencing,” Grand County Clerk/Auditor Quinn Hall wrote in an email.
Some counties are leveraging technology to attract residents — and the accompanying tax revenue — as white-collar professionals realize they now can work from anywhere.
“Morgan County is a bedroom community; most of our residents commute to the Wasatch Front for work,” said council member Mike Newton, adding that the county used its federal funds to expand internet access for residents. “With a vast majority of companies allowing their employees the ability to work remotely and students attending school remotely, it has become a high priority for residents to have access to reliable high-speed internet.”
Millions more on its way
Congress ended up extending its timelines for local governments to spend their CARES dollars in December, with former President Donald Trump signing off on it just days before the deadline was supposed to hit.
That bought the counties more time and flexibility. Now, even more federal assistance is on its way.
Washington will funnel another $8.4 billion to Utah in the coming months through the American Rescue Plan, the same bill that recently sent Americans $1,400 payments. Utah’s counties will receive $622 million in direct disbursements, according to the governor’s office. Although the bulk of that will again go to Salt Lake and Utah counties (where 56% of the population resides), local governments throughout the state are again finding themselves sorting through the best ways to invest a big sum of federal cash.
In Sanpete County, Commissioner Bartholomew said there continue to be ongoing needs, like repairs to the fairgrounds and improvements to roads. But he worries about the long-term consequences to the federal debt from programs like CARES and the American Rescue Plan.
“I’m old and senile; I don’t need to worry about it. My kids and grandkids will,” he said. “We can spend the money, there’s no question about it. Do we need it? Eh. Will we spend it? Yeah.”
Last summer, a survey by the Rural West Covid Project found strong bipartisan support for the government pandemic aid for things like housing, health care and small-business support.
“There’s this contradiction you see throughout the rural West,” said J. Tom Mueller, an assistant professor of sociology at Utah State University who co-wrote the study. “There’s this assumption they’re self-reliant, they don’t want handouts, and while that’s true, rural areas tend to benefit from government spending just as much, if not more, than urban people.”
The survey found 79% of rural county dwellers want more relief for small businesses, 64% want more government spending on health care, and 55% want increased investment in roads, bridges and other improvements. Rural residents only wanted to see a decrease in government spending on two things: big business and oil and gas projects.
Mueller said investment in broadband could especially be critical in spurring post-pandemic economic development in less urban counties.
“In our study, we found 18% of households with children under 16 didn’t have access to high-speed internet,” he said. “Even in gateway communities like Moab, the [Federal Communications Commission] would say they have high-speed internet, but they have a hard time doing video. ... So there’s disconnect between FCC statistics and what people say they have access to.”
But in Garfield County, Commissioner Leland Pollock said he’d like to see the federal government offer long-term support in the form of industries that create good jobs instead of a big cash handout. The county is home to natural assets like Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, as well as the Dixie National Forest. But only 3.5% of the county is private land that the county can tax for revenue.
“That’s how you control your destiny as a county normally, with property tax,” he said. “That’s why you have PILT, or payment in lieu of taxes [from the federal government.] We’ve always joked it’s ‘pennies in lieu of taxes.’”
Pollock added that the county used to have a lumber industry that brought sustainable income to county residents.
“The most pressing need is to figure out how we can turn the federal land into a return for our constituents. Recreation and tourism are great. We’re not against it, but it’s just not going to feed a family, raise your kid, and put them in school,” Pollock said. “We would much rather have a little bit of say in what goes on in those federal lands, rather than they send us an amount of money one time.”
— Tribune reporter Zak Podmore contributed to this story.