Federal Relief Funds: A Tale of Two Counties
Neighboring St. Louis and St. Charles Counties are taking different approaches in handling federal coronavirus relief funds, with potential consequences for taxpayer dollars.
St. Louis County councilmembers, in a contested 4-3 vote, forfeited their legislative oversight authority of the federal coronavirus relief funds the county received to the county executive. No spending plan has been released, leading some to question the executive’s spending priorities.
The lack of legislative oversight appears to have contributed to some questionable expenditures. A $1.7 million overflow morgue was constructed which is currently sitting empty and has never held more than 56 coronavirus victims out of a capacity of 1,300. Additionally, a $1 million no-bid contract for a hotel to shelter sick first responders is currently reserving empty rooms. Of the 120 rooms reserved since mid-March, only 52 have been used for an average of $23,000 per person for an eight-day stay. The ten rooms currently in use are housing homeless people rather than emergency responders. As only $9 million of the relief funds have been spent so far, these are not insignificant expenses.
Conversely, St. Charles County councilmembers retained legislative oversight and influence over how the funds will be spent and have released a plan to do so. All money is currently designated for coronavirus-related expenses or reimbursements, as it should be. No spending data has been published yet, so time will tell if additional oversight will aid in more prudent spending.
Having legislative oversight is no guarantee that questionable decisions will not be made, but it can reduce the risk. St. Louis County councilmembers who voted against forfeiting oversight lamented the council’s lack of involvement in the executive’s decisions, noting that other ideas could have resulted in better use of taxpayer money. St. Charles County councilmembers made a point not to take the same route as their neighbors, with the goal of establishing broad transparency over expenditures.
Ultimately, transparency in government spending is for more than just transparency’s sake. Accountability and oversight hold out the promise of more prudent use of taxpayer money, especially as taxpayer dollars will be at a premium for the foreseeable future.