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Douglas County looks for ways to spend $111 million in federal COVID aid
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Douglas County looks for ways to spend $111 million in federal COVID aid

Nebraska nonprofits surveyed said they anticipate losing a combined $15.5 million in 2021 due to the effects of COVID.

The deliberations are just beginning over how Douglas County will spend its allocation of $111 million from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The Douglas County Board is considering how to spend the first half of the federal funds, which are already in hand. The board voted to prioritize mental health initiatives and to address county government needs before considering external requests.

It’s a large amount of money for a county with a general fund budget of $230 million for 2021-22 and a total budget of $460 million without the federal relief money.

No specific large spending proposals have emerged, although it appears likely that the county will direct a substantial portion of the money to mental health services.

Currently, the county is routing requests through its finance director, Joe Lorenz, and an American Rescue Plan Act Strategy Committee led by County Board Chairwoman Mary Ann Borgeson. The committee, which includes County Board members Mike Friend and Chris Rodgers and three administrative staffers, will vet requests and make recommendations to the full board.

Board votes are expected by this fall for significant portions of the $55.5 million that Douglas County has already received. The other half of the federal money is expected in May.

“What we’ll do next is bring to the board what those county function expenditures may be and see if they’re agreeable to those, and come up with our strategy for mental health,” Borgeson said. “And we have to come up with a dollar amount on what we want to spend that on when it comes to mental health.”

The Douglas County allocation is part of $350 billion in coronavirus aid being distributed to state, territorial, tribal, county and city governments nationwide. Congress approved the money earlier this year.

About $1 billion is being sent to Nebraska. That includes about $112 million to the City of Omaha and $111 million to the state. Sarpy County is slated to receive $36 million, and the City of Bellevue will get $8.4 million.

The U.S. Treasury Department has said the aid is meant to “help turn the tide on the pandemic, address its economic fallout, and lay the foundation for a strong and equitable recovery.”

Broadly, the federal money can be used to support public health expenditures, address negative economic effects of the pandemic, replace lost tax revenue, provide premium pay for essential workers and invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

The Biden administration is giving state and local governments wide flexibility in how to spend the money, especially when it comes to addressing public health and economic disparities in low-income neighborhoods and other areas disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Behavioral health care and mental health and substance misuse treatment are among a number of uses specifically mentioned in the Treasury Department guidelines for how the money can be spent.

County Board members have for years lamented a shortage of long-term mental health treatment space and the large number of people with mental health needs who are in the Douglas County Jail on minor charges.

Asked whether American Rescue Plan money could be directed to buy or construct a building for in-patient mental health treatment, Borgeson said, “I have no idea.”

“Whatever option anybody wants to talk about, we’re going to talk about,” she said.

Borgeson and the board have been conducting listening sessions to collect views from mental health providers, people with mental illness and their families, and the general public. Borgeson said those sessions will inform the board’s decision.

Aileen Brady, chief operating officer of the nonprofit mental health services provider Community Alliance, said she is thrilled about the mental health priority.

Brady said she couldn’t yet point to specific areas to which the county should focus the money to best serve the community. Brady commended Borgeson and the board for having the listening sessions.

“I’ve participated in those listening sessions and tried to also listen for what the community is saying that they need,” Brady said. “The needs are pretty wide and varied, from more support for kids services to adults who are really stressed with supporting their kids with school changing and with the COVID delta variant, to mental health needs that have been exposed because of the isolation and the stress.”

At least one potentially big-ticket mental health item has been expressed publicly. County Board member Jim Cavanaugh said at the Strategy Committee’s July 19 meeting that the county should consider expanding facilities and personnel at the Douglas County Health Center to provide more long-term mental health care.

Cavanaugh said he has heard several community needs expressed at public input sessions of the County Board committee he chairs. Those include aid for such small businesses as restaurants, child care centers and barbers hurt badly by the pandemic, as well as individuals affected by it.

County Board member Mike Friend said a case could be made for using some of the federal money to address the prevalence of mental illness among people held in the Douglas County Jail. It’s a chronic problem that leads to crowding at the jail, and the pandemic has made it worse, he said.

“There’s going to be an opportunity for plenty of dialogue, and the people will be involved in that,” Friend said.

County Board member Maureen Boyle said the federal money is an “opportunity to do things to beef up county services so we can keep people from losing their homes, or from going to jail, or not having access to food.”

“We can help people with education or job training,” she said.

On mental health funding, Boyle said the county should direct money to one-time expenditures that won’t create the need for tax increases when the federal money is gone.

Borgeson said the Strategy Committee meetings will be open to the public and conducted as public meetings. She said that a schedule for the meetings has not been set but that public notices will be posted when they are.

Brady called the county’s research and deliberations on mental health needs “a work in progress.”

“It’s going to take some brainstorming and a lot of different heads together to come up with that final strategy that’s going to help our community,” she said. “I know they (County Board members) are open to listening and getting even more feedback.”


Omaha World-Herald: Afternoon Update

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Chris Burbach covers the Douglas County Board, Planning Board and other local government bodies, as well as local neighborhood issues. Follow him on Twitter @chrisburbach. Phone: 402-444-1057.

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