By Chris Bowling
When Douglas County received $166 million to stymie the economic affects of COVID-19, it was clear immediately that it was going to strain the system.
“What [County Administrator] Patrick [Bloomingdale] and I always say is this [CARES Act money] is a blessing and a curse,” County Finance Director Joe Lorenz told The Reader in July. “Some days it’s more of a blessing, and other days it’s much more of a curse.”
Yesterday, the Douglas County Board of Commissioners held their last meeting of the year and the last chance to allocate funds. The meeting went on for nearly five hours and put a somewhat acrimonious end to a process that’s caused tension for months.
“Oh come on Mike,” groaned Commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson as Commissioner Mike Boyle tried to interrupt a conversation.
“You know how to push my buttons and you’ve known it for years,” said outgoing Commission Chair Clare Duda who’s been on the county board since 1993 and worked with Boyle since 1997. Boyle raised his eyebrows and threw up his hands in surprise. “If you just keep talking every time I’m talking,” Duda said, “it does get to me.”
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When it was all said and done, the commission allocated nearly all the money the federal government sent over when it passed the CARES Act in March. But a lot of that money still hasn’t been spent. Meanwhile other services have raked up bigger price tags than intended. It piles on a list of complaints that’s caused infighting between: commissioners, the public and the county board, the board and county administrators, the county and the state.
Early on the tension centered on how fast the county should spend the money. While the board spent money to retrofit hospitals for COVID-19 and offset pandemic-related expenses, it didn’t make funds available to the public until the summer when it launched its rental assistance and utility assistance program. Some like Commissioner Jim Cavanaugh said the lack of urgency was frustrating but made sense in a way.
“There was no plan, and this is a problem that Douglas County has systemically,” County Commissioner Jim Cavanaugh said in July. “They don’t make strategic plans. So there was no plan for how to do this, how to distribute the $166 million. They waited and waited.”
Others wanted to make sure they were complying with every rule set by the federal government. Any misuse of funds would come out of the county’s pocket if they were ever audited.
But even once programs launched, the debate centered about how accessible they were. Commissioners originally allocated $10 million to the rental assistance program with thoughts that they might raise it to $35 million.
Since launching in July the county has not spent that allocated amount and will likely have funds left over. The deadline for renters to apply was Dec. 13. It’s also left a large pool of rejected applicants, about half of people that applied were rejected their first time around. About half of that group ended up reapplying and being accepted.
Many people may have met the criteria but provided improper documentation, or worse their landlord didn’t want to comply with the process.
“It’s frustrating to see people that clearly need this money and should qualify for it, be denied for reasons that may not always be in their control,” said Caitlin Cedfeldt, a housing attorney for Legal Aid of Nebraska.
Part of that is the county was not equipped to run these programs solely with the staff it had. Commissioner Boyle often said he wanted to work with nonprofits to figure out how to spend the money, but other commissioners wanted to go with the contractor Deloitte. That was supposed to cost the county about $300,000. Instead Deloitte raked up a bill of $1.5 million.
For some it’s just a fact of what it took to pull off a successful program. They look at how much the county was able to spend—millions in rent assistance, more for local arts organizations, tens of millions to the City of Omaha and a spattering of small allocations across county departments.
But for others it’s a tough pill to swallow.Housing advocates expect a tidal wave of people to lose their homes as a federal moratorium on evictions ends on Dec. 31. Nonprofit workers watch lines for mobile food pantries wrap around city blocks. They could have used some of that $166 million too.
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