Distribution of more than $1 billion in federal CARES Act money will soon begin to governments across Nebraska. Every governmental entity in Nebraska — the state, counties, cities — must make absolutely sure they understand a key federal provision: The CARES Act empowers the federal government to closely scrutinize every use of the aid money.
So, be warned, Nebraska cities, counties and state agencies: Play fast and loose with the rules this year, and next year you may well find an unhappy Uncle Sam reaching into your budget to get the money back.
That principle applies to the Douglas County government, for example. The county has received $166 million to distribute to its own agencies and local governments. Some Douglas County agencies indeed have incurred major expenses in the wake of the coronavirus. The Douglas County Health Department has been in the forefront of efforts to confront the virus locally. Another example is the Douglas County Health Center, the second-largest nursing home in Nebraska and which has suffered COVID-19 deaths. Compensation for improved air systems and automated faucets for the center’s rooms and nursing facilities are justified, for example.
But some of the funding requests currently before the County Board don’t come close to passing the smell test. Odorous examples include boiler and chiller repairs at the Douglas County Jail, as well as installation of ultraviolet lighting — which kills bacteria but not the coronavirus.
Clare Duda, the board chair, told The World-Herald Wednesday that the list of requests “is going to be scrutinized, and I expect it to dwindle.” Duda said he finds some of the county departments’ requests justified and others not: “That list is going to be pared down.”
In drafting the CARES Act, Congress made the mistake of requiring that cities under 500,000 in population receive no money directly but must instead beseech their counties and the state. That’s an incredibly inefficient way to distribute badly needed compensation. In Omaha’s case, after seeking $72 million from the county, it looks like the city may receive a total of about $50 million, with half provided by Douglas County and half potentially from the state.
The Governor’s Office rightly emphasizes the need for Omaha to adequately justify its compensation needs. As we have argued, the city is a strong driver of economic activity in the county and the state. It clearly has faced increased costs due to the virus emergency, and it would be a mistake for the state to stiff-arm Omaha after Douglas County held its purse strings tightly.
The aid distribution is about to begin. Local governments must remain diligent and responsible, adhering closely to the rules.