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CARES funds spent on more than basics

Improving technology to give students better remote access to their teachers seems like good use of CARES act funding.

So does purchasing ambulances or personal protective equipment for first responders treating COVID-19 patients.

This year’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Stimulus bill set aside billions of dollars to help in the economic fallout from COVID-19. It’s supposed to help individual Americans get by, pay for unemployment benefits, create a Paycheck Protection Program for forgivable small business loans and offer aid to large corporations, and to provide relief for state and local governments — presumably to help when income tax revenue falls because of unemployment or COVID-related expenses increase.

Indeed, the enormous stimulus program has been meaningful for residents, businesses and local government.

But now, it seems like so much money has been distributed to local governments that they might just be running out of what logical people would classify as legitimate uses.

Keep in mind, CARES funds may be used only for pandemic-related expenses and any unused funds must be returned. And while the money comes from the federal government, it’s still public money and spending must be justified.

Consider these few local uses we’ve published recently.

Liberty Township trustees will spend thousands of dollars in CARES Act funds on touchless doors and fixtures in township building restrooms; hand sanitizer and bathroom ventilation systems; as well as to fund virtual Zoom meetings.

Seems like logical COVID-related expenses.

Now wrap your head around this.

Liberty trustees, like other local elected officials, also voted this month to use much of its $650,000 in CARES funds to pay at least 10 months of police, fire and EMS payroll and benefits.

Yes, the township already had budgeted funds, as usual, to pay first responder salaries, but the township’s law director pointed out that the U.S. Treasury Department determined that because the impact of the coronavirus substantially changed these employees’ work, their new type of work becomes eligible for CARES funds.

Undoubtedly, the work has changed. But has the fact that first responders are being paid changed?

Liberty Township also intends to spend $48,535 of its coronavirus relief funds on a road department truck. Trustees reason that during the pandemic, the township hired an additional road department worker. Requiring road department employees to travel together in the small enclosed space of a truck puts workers at risk for COVID-19, so the township justified use of CARES Act funds to, yes, buy a truck.

The township also previously set aside $10,000 in funds for local small businesses that already could have applied for the funds — never mind that the federal government already allocated more than $260 billion for use as forgivable loans to small U.S. businesses.

The township also is donating thousands of dollars to nonprofit groups and Liberty Local School District, which probably were eligible for their own CARES Act funds.

I don’t mean to pick only on Liberty Township.

Howland Township also is giving away some of the money.

Trustees voted to award each of their approximately 20 police officers with a $1,000 hazard bonus in recognition of the situations they face daily in dealing with the public during the coronavirus pandemic.

And Youngstown had perhaps the most unique plan for spending COVID-relief funds.

City council agreed to use $204,800 in COVID-19 relief money to buy a truck and two dumpsters for disposal of — wait for it — abandoned mattresses.

Apparently the number of mattresses illegally dumped since mid-March is about 1,200 compared with around 200 per year pre-pandemic.

In all, Youngstown has received $5,281,248 in COVID-19 funds with most going to salaries and benefits of first responders and dispatchers, health, parks and finance departments.

Youngstown also is spending about $219,000 on 115 sets of new turnout gear for city firefighters.

City income tax collection are down and $2.5 million under budget, largely because of the pandemic.

Some might argue the spending of these federal tax dollars is creative, but others might call it a stretch.

I’ll let you, dear taxpayer, decide.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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