S.D. County to distribute $650 million in federal COVID-19 aid

The County Board of Supervisors
The County Board of Supervisors at a May meeting (from left) Terra Lawson-Remer, Nora Vargas, and Nathan Fletcher
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego County Supervisors will divvy up nearly $650 million in federal COVID-19 assistance Tuesday, June 8, with the biggest shares proposed for pandemic response, homeless services and business aid.

“It’s an opportunity for us to make strategic investments that can lay the foundation for successful recovery from COVID,” Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher said. “I look forward to discussion and hearing my colleagues’ ideas.”

In March President Joe Biden signed The American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion federal relief bill that included direct payments to Americans, billions for COVID-19 vaccination and funding to local governments to help communities recover from the pandemic.

On Tuesday, June 8, the Board of Supervisors will consider a spending plan for its share of the money. Half of the federal aid will be available this year, and the county will receive the remainder next spring.

The draft plan proposed by county staff would allocate nearly half the total, or $307.5 million, toward the cost of responding to the pandemic, including COVID-19 testing, tracing, treatment and vaccination efforts.

Of that, $232.5 million would cover previous and ongoing expenses through September. Another $75 million would be set aside for ongoing pandemic response after that time.

The next largest portion of funding, $85 million, would go to homeless services, according to the draft plan.

Small businesses could get $50 million to help them recover from more than a year of intermittent closures and reduced revenue. Infrastructure programs could receive $46 million, and mental health services may get $30 million.

And $40 million is tentatively slated for “premium pay” for county workers, with $36 million covering hazard pay for employees who were required to work in person during the pandemic and another $4 million was proposed for teleworking expenses for remote workers.

In a previous meeting the board drew up a list of categories for COVID-19 spending and proposed amounts for each section or “bucket.” Board members then submitted their own priorities for the relief money, and the County Administrative Officer compiled a proposal based on those suggestions.

In some cases, however, the supervisors’ wish lists for specific funding buckets totaled more than the original amount set aside for that use, so the board will have to hash out those differences to pare down spending.

“Some submitted numbers way in excess of that bucket, so we wouldn’t be able to do that,” Fletcher said. “Obviously, we’re not going to be able to do everything everyone wants.”

For instance, within the category of homeless services, supervisors called for various initiatives including housing vouchers, rental subsidies, emergency shelters, affordable housing and LGBTQ housing assistance. Their total proposals for that category came to $155 million, nearly double the $85 million in federal aid that they had agreed to spend on homelessness.

In the category of senior and youth services, the board previously allotted $10 million. But their combined asks, including free youth transportation, foster youth support, grants for youth camps and sports, and burial assistance, amounted to more than seven times that, at $71.5 million.

The board had also agreed to spend $10 million on childcare assistance, but specific proposals for that category, including childcare grants, vouchers, workforce investment and facilities improvements, came to $75 million.

The board also will likely debate plans to issue hazard pay for county employees working in person during the pandemic. The two Republican supervisors, Joel Anderson and Jim Desmond, have said they don’t favor hazard pay.

“These are taxpayer dollars, and I believe it should be given back to the people who were most impacted by the pandemic,” Desmond said.

Desmond separately announced proposals to spend COVID-19 relief on a restaurant dining program, rental assistance for first responders, and youth sports subsidies. He said business, youth and mental health are his top priorities for the federal aid, but he said he expects hazard pay to be approved.

Anderson said county workers should not receive hazard pay; the assistance should first go to San Diegans who lost jobs or business income to the pandemic.

The board “should not pay COVID BONUSES to individuals whose average pay and benefits are over $125,000, and not one employee lost their job unlike 100,000 San Diegans,” Anderson said in an e-mail. Although he appreciates county employees’ contributions during the pandemic, he said, his position on hazard pay is “not only no, but heck no.”

Fletcher noted that he needs four votes to start hazard pay immediately as a mid-year budget adjustment, but it could pass with just three votes as part of the 2021-22 budget, which the board is expected to approve later this month.

—Deborah Sullivan Brennan is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune