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Council defends decision on funds

Firefighters’ union president questions why city didn’t apply for CARES Act money

At a City Council meeting Monday, the president of the city firefighters’ union questioned the city’s decision not to apply for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money from Blair County — given that Logan Township applied for the funding and received $622,000.

The city didn’t apply because it’s getting reimbursed for its direct COVID-19 expenses from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and because it wished to defer to AMED and the Central Blair Recreation and Park Commission, which have been damaged financially more than the city by COVID-19, said City Manager Ken Decker.

Moreover, despite being almost four times larger than Logan, the city wasn’t eligible for anywhere near as much money as Logan received, because only direct COVID-19 expenses qualify, and those were only $60,000 — for personal protective equipment, protective partitions and similar expenses, Decker said.

Patrick Miller, president of the International Association of Firefighters local, disagreed with that assessment.

“We missed the boat,” Miller said, suggesting that if Logan could get $622,000, the city might have gotten more than $1 million in CARES Act money from the county.

Not getting those funds will have an unfortunate effect when the city’s three unions begin negotiating new contracts that should take effect at the beginning of next year, Miller said.

COVID-19 caused a revenue shortfall in the city of about $500,000 for 2020, Decker estimated.

But municipalities aren’t eligible to use CARES Act money to make up for revenue shortfalls, he said.

Rather, the CARES Act requires that money awarded for local governments “only be used to cover expenses that are necessary expenditures incurred due to the (COVID-19) public health emergency … were not accounted for in the budget … and were incurred during the period (March 1 and Dec. 30),” according to a U.S. Treasury web page.

Eligible expenses include wages for “public safety, public health, health care, human services, and similar employees whose services are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency,” the FAQ section of the Treasury webpage states.

That doesn’t include wages that a municipality expected in the normal course of affairs to spend on police and firefighting, according to Decker and city Fire Chief Tim Hileman.

The county itself, on the application for CARES funding, states: “Eligible expenses must be unbudgeted (and) related to preparing for and responding to (the) coronavirus…Municipalities must document that those expenses are a direct response or planning effort to COVID-19…”

The county lists examples of eligible expenses, including PPE, signage, dividers, building safety purchases and the cost of transitioning to virtual meetings, but doesn’t include loss of revenue due to COVID-19 or reimbursement of budgeted wages as eligible expenses.

Yet Logan Township asked for reimbursement of “a majority of Police Department wages during COVID-19 March-August 2020.”

That requested amount was $622,000.

The township doesn’t explain how those wages would be eligible to be reimbursed, although it speaks of there being 168 more police calls between March and August than the year before.

But that is just a 4.7 percent increase in call volume, according to the application.

The township doesn’t argue that the small increase in call volume resulted from COVID-19 — or that it resulted in paying additional wages.

Asked to explain why the township was eligible for the money, Manager Tim Brown wrote in an email:

“We applied for the CARES Act money based on the information provided by the County and the consultants they were using to help with the grant administration.”

“This is the same information that was provided to, or was available to all Blair County municipalities,” Brown added.

“We followed the guidelines,” said township Supervisors’ Chairman Jim Patterson. “If the county would have had any problems or qualms, they should have rejected or questioned it.”

It’s not the township’s fault that the city didn’t apply, Patterson said.

Other municipalities also got money from the county, although much less: Greenfield Township, $73,000; Frankstown Township, $13,000; and Hollidaysburg Borough, $8,000, while AMED — the city and Logan’s ambulance authority — got $1.5 million and the Central Blair Rec Commission, a council of governments comprising the city, Logan and the Altoona Area School District, got $20,000.

County Administrator Nicole Hemminger didn’t reply to an email sent Sunday asking her to explain why the county awarded the $622,000 to the township.

While the guidance from the federal government and the county state that the CARES funding was intended to reimburse actual COVID-19 expenses, one answer to a Frequently Asked Question on the Treasury website seems to contradict that — and to open up eligibility more broadly, perhaps justifying the Logan award.

The answer follows a question about how a local government can determine whether an employee’s wages qualify for reimbursement based on the requirement that the employee’s work be “substantially dedicated” to “mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

That can be assumed, according to the answer:

“As a matter of administrative convenience in light of the emergency nature of this program (a municipality) may presume that payroll costs for … public safety employees are payments for services substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency, unless the chief executive (or equivalent) of the relevant government determines that specific circumstances indicate otherwise,”

Decker didn’t buy it, when the passage was pointed out to him, calling it a “loophole.”

“If we want to make believe” that police officers’ and firefighters’ work is substantially related to COVID-19, “we can,” Decker said. “But I still think we live in a place called reality.”

Still, neither Decker nor City Council explicitly criticized Logan for its success in obtaining the grant — or the county for awarding it.

“We’re not a watchdog for (the Treasury Department),” Decker said. “What Logan received is between the Logan Township officials and the Blair County officials and the federal government.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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