Douglas County would spend $65 million in federal coronavirus relief aid on its buildings and programs, including improvements to the health center and jail, while distributing just $25 million to the City of Omaha, under a proposal presented Tuesday to the County Board.
The money comes from the federal CARES Act, which allotted $166 million for Douglas County to distribute. Besides the county and city money, another $30 million would go to other local governments and agencies. And $46 million would be reserved for unspecified future needs.
Omaha’s $25 million in federal money is about one-third of the $72 million that city officials sought from the county. However, Douglas County Finance Director Joe Lorenz told board members that Omaha might receive an additional $25 million from the State of Nebraska’s allotment, bringing the city’s total to $50 million.
The County Board did not vote on the proposal Tuesday. But the board could vote as early as June 23 on many of the county’s proposed capital expenditures in order to meet requirements that the projects be done this year.
The federal money is intended to help local governments that have seen some costs rise under COVID-19 even as their revenues have slumped amid the economic disruption. In Omaha, for example, Mayor Jean Stothert has said she expects at least an $80 million revenue shortfall for this year because of the coronavirus.
She and City Finance Director Steve Curtiss have said the county should give the city more money, including enough to cover all of the city’s fire and police costs from March through May. City officials believe the federal regulations would allow that, but county officials disagree.
“We’re not going to cover revenue loss; that’s specifically not allowed,” said Clare Duda, board chair. “We’re not going to cover the entire fire and police payrolls. The expenses that meet the guidelines, we are going to cover.”
Duda said the city’s proposed portion is calculated based on the monthly amount of direct, unbudgeted-for coronavirus expenses that city officials have said Omaha is incurring.
Stothert said the city would be grateful for $25 million, although she said the city made a valid request for more.
While the county suggests that Omaha could still receive additional money from the state, a spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts said nothing has been decided.
“The amount of coronavirus-related expenses that the State of Nebraska will cost-share with Douglas County is still a matter of consideration,“ said spokesman Taylor Gage.
The County Attorney’s Office and other officials are still researching whether the proposed expenditures in the county plan are allowed by the regulations, and the County Board plans to hire an accounting firm to help with that question. In addition, discussion and debate are still to be held.
Besides the $25 million to the city, the plan calls for distributing $8 million to other local governments and rural fire departments in Douglas County, $2 million to the Omaha/Douglas Public Building Commission, and a combined $20 million to government agencies and nonprofit organizations for rent assistance and aid to the homeless.
As for Douglas County itself, the proposal envisions spending $55 million on capital improvement projects and equipment upgrades, plus another $10 million to cover additional costs to the county for COVID-19 expenses.
The projects include several new air handling units, pumps and exhaust fans, a replacement steam boiler and chilling towers, upgraded lighting, new isolation rooms and automatic faucets in patient rooms and nursing stations at the Douglas County Health Center. The 240-bed center provides long-term nursing care and assisted living to Douglas County residents regardless of their ability to pay. It had a COVID-19 outbreak among staff and residents.
At the Douglas County Jail, federal money would be used for boiler and chiller repairs as well as new lighting. The proposal includes upgrades to HVAC systems at the jail and Douglas County Youth Center that would make those systems “pandemic ready.”
The Douglas County Jail typically houses about 1,100 inmates, most of them arrested by the Omaha Police Department. The jail has not had a COVID-19 outbreak.
Duda said some of the items, such as new boilers, might seem hard to justify, but he said he’s being told that they would qualify under the federal regulations. The new lighting would be an ultraviolet light that kills bacteria, which would make the facilities more sanitary — but as Duda noted, it would not kill the coronavirus, which is not a bacteria.
“Until somebody tells me they don’t qualify, we believe they do,” Duda said. “Nobody’s giving their blessings yet. We’re just saying here is what we’re considering. ... If there is a second wave (of the coronavirus), I think these actions would prepare us for that.”
Stothert said she was “a little speechless” over what the county is proposing to spend on its own projects.
“I just don’t understand putting things in like chillers and HVAC systems and steam boilers,” she said.
The mayor said it’s her understanding that the federal money is supposed to go for costs incurred during the current pandemic, not a second wave of the coronavirus or future pandemic.
“They (the County Board) are the ones that have to decide how they’re going to spend the money,” Stothert said. “But I know for a fact that these will get audited, and if (the money is) spent on expenses that are not permissible, they may have to pay the money back.”