As Montgomery County heads deeper into budget season, county officials still have their eyes on spending and federal funding for the current fiscal year.
How much the county receives in federal reimbursements for costs incurred because of the pandemic could affect the next budget.
The county received $183 million in federal assistance from the Coronavirus Relief Fund in April 2020 and has used the money to fund assistance programs and cover pandemic-related costs.
About 86% of the funding has been spent or encumbered, excluding the cost of hazard pay, which went to employees for their work during the pandemic. They received more if they worked in close proximity to the public.
From early April 2020 to mid-February 2021, the county spent about $89 million on extra hazard pay. Employees who had direct contact with the public were given an extra $10 per hour. Those working in an office, not near the public, could receive an additional $3 per hour.
The payments stopped in February under an agreement between County Executive Marc Elrich and the three unions.
Once the hazard pay ended, the County Council voted 8-1 to approve a $3.8 million appropriation for employee raises to replace it. Council Member Andrew Friedson voted against the approval.
The county’s administration has continued to work on trying to get hazard pay reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is providing reimbursements for pandemic-related costs.
But the reimbursements have been in limbo with FEMA. It’s still unclear whether hazard pay will be completely or partially reimbursed.
Rich Madaleno, the county’s chief administrative officer, told the council during a briefing on March 23 that the county has haggled with FEMA on what work can be counted as eligible for hazard pay.
Madaleno provided an example — FEMA recognizing the pay for a police officer who is spending work hours on mask enforcement, but pushing back on other work that is not directly pandemic-related.
“Every time a police officer, every time a firefighter or paramedic responded to an emergency call, they had to walk in assuming that that person was in fact COVID-positive,” he said. “Whether or not they were having a respiratory situation or a heart attack, how would we ever know that that case was in fact, days later, determined to be COVID-related for us to then book that as a COVID-related expense?
“How could the federal government ever assume to work through this level of detail? Or expect any local government to be able to justify every 911 call? It makes sense maybe when you’re sitting in a conference room, but when you get in the real world, it all bogs down.”
Congress has accepted that all time spent in doing any sort of frontline work is eligible for hazard pay, Madaleno said.
“If Congress has embraced that now as the view, FEMA should get on board and do the same thing,” he said. “Especially for jurisdictions like us who had pre-existing contractual relationships with our employees about hazard pay and emergency pay, and we were just embracing that concept, and, in fact, trying to do it in a way that was far more affordable.”
FEMA did not immediately response to a request for comment on Friday morning.
Madaleno noted that instead of paying employees double time, the county negotiated with the unions for a decreased rate.
Friedson has repeatedly voiced concerns about the county’s plan for covering hazard-pay costs. He told Madaleno that he still has concerns about the county’s challenge of basing fiscal decisions on the assumption that the county will be reimbursed for hazard pay.
“I remain concerned that there’s really a lot of unanswered questions and we don’t know where it’s going to result,” he said.
Madaleno noted that in the proposed budget for the next fiscal year, Elrich left $82.4 million unallocated, so that county leaders could figure out the best use of the money. There is also additional federal and state assistance expected, he said.
As of March 23, the county submitted four FEMA reimbursement claims totaling $92.9 million.
Of those, $23.9 million has been approved and received as a reimbursement. An additional $7.2 million is expected because of President Joe Biden’s order for reimbursements to increase 75% to 100% of eligible costs.
The county received feedback and requests for more information and documents on the remaining three submissions and is preparing to resubmit the requests.
Three additional reimbursement requests totaling $35.7 million are expected to be submitted to FEMA soon.
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.