‘Such dire need’: Counties move to use up CARES Act money before deadline with no stimulus deal in sight

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AURORA | The funds Aurora-area counties are using to prop up COVID-19 testing centers and safety net programs will run out at the end of the month, and it’s still unclear if federal lawmakers will throw them — and residents — another lifeline.

Arapahoe and Adams counties originally received a combined $204 million for COVID-19 relief programs after federal lawmakers created the first stimulus in March. But the federal government will reclaim money that isn’t spent on pandemic measures by December 30. Advocates say, unless more funding comes quickly after the deadline, critical housing and business assistance programs will dry up. 

“There is such a dire need,” Adams County Commissioner Emma Pinter told the Sentinel. “We have businesses and families that will not survive that long. They will become homeless in the winter.”  

Adams County coffers were still flush with $20 million as of Dec. 8, spokesperson Christa Bruning said. Officials planned to spend every dollar.

In Arapahoe County, commissioners moved millions of dollars this week to spend their whole pot of stimulus money as well. 

Throughout the Aurora-region the buckets of federal aid have fueled a laundry list of pandemic-era programs since the spring. 

That includes housing and business assistance programs, virus testing sites and a partnership with CU Anschutz researchers to study antibody development in residents. Governments have also used the funds to write-off pandemic-related expenses, such as face coverings for employees and cleaning supplies. 

The counties also handed school districts and cities their own funds. The City of Aurora netted $30 million, which officials used to launch their own business supports, homeless programming, testing centers, hazard pay and rent assistance programs. 

Mayor Mike Coffman, a former Republican Congressman, said the federal aid has been “an invaluable source of tens of millions in funding to offer essential support to our residents and businesses throughout the pandemic.”

In Adams County, officials rolled out another federally-funded restaurant assistance program this week handing out $10,000 grants to struggling eateries.

The program aims to help restaurants hit by low demand and public health restrictions on indoor dining to reduce rampant viral spread. 

Pinter said Adams County is still serving as a vessel for the federal aid as the clock runs out. 

The county has so far spent $2 million in housing assistance funding for 585 households. 

Adams County is also shouldering much of the financial burden for the Water World virus testing site, which Pinter said is now the state’s largest. Officials handed out $22 million to cities, fire departments and school systems — the main food source for thousands of Colorado kids — and gave more than $1 million to the Village Exchange Center’s support program for people who don’t qualify for insurance benefits. 

Pinter said the programming wouldn’t be possible without the $90 million injection to the county’s $575 million budget. 

Arapahoe County is shoring up its own programs for its 650,000 residents.

To spend all of its CARES Act funds, officials doubled spending on business grant programs from $5 million to $10 million, said spokesperson Luc Hatlestad. The county is still accepting applications for a second round of Business Impact Assistance Grants until Friday, Dec. 11. 

Officials also put more money into motel and hotel housing vouchers and rent assistance while handing out $6 million to school systems, including the Cherry Creek School District. 

Rising unemployment and the third wave of virus cases is framing federal lawmakers’ meetings this week to hammer out a second, smaller stimulus package. 

But as of Dec. 10, it’s unclear whether aid for state and local governments will be included in the hotly-debated package — and whether the stimulus will move through Congress at all. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had proposed shelving the top Democratic priority — aid to state and local governments — in exchange for dropping his own provision, a shield against lawsuits for COVID-related negligence. Democrats blasted the plan. 

Pinter said Adams County residents can’t wait months for a stimulus package. 

Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, said McConnell needs to ensure counties receive more aide after Dec. 30. 

He said that county coffers could dry up, along with their safety net programs and employment. The pandemic-induced recession has already wrecked havoc on local governments’ tax revenues, imperiling Aurora’s $918 million budget. And unlike the federal government, local governments can’t continue to spend money they don’t have.

“That’s hard stuff,” he said.  

Coffman said Aurora officials would “welcome” more aid to continue the city’s support programming “until the pandemic is over.” 

Behind the scenes, Adams County commissioners have been lobbying Colorado’s federal delegation to send more support, Pinter said. She said they have to. A county assessment found residents still need a combined $4.7 million in government assistance to help them stay in their homes. 

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