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Struggling Counties Get a Boost from Stimulus Windfall

The pandemic and vaccine rollout remain the top priority for counties. Federal stimulus dollars will help with that, along with other responsibilities, including public safety and schools.

NACo headquarters
Thanks to the latest stimulus, every county in the country will receive money directly from the federal government, based on population. This fulfills a goal local governments have pursued since the pandemic began a year ago.

“I’ve got 147 million ways to say this relief plan is going to have an impact for us,” says Larry Johnson, a commissioner in DeKalb County, Ga. “We’re all glad to have the money go directly to our counties and not go through the state first.”

County leaders insist the windfall will be put to good use. They’re receiving a lot of federal money, but face many competing demands for it. Even as distributing vaccines and dealing with the pandemic remain the most pressing business, counties have to perform all their normal functions – running courts, building roads, providing public safety and transit and all the rest. 

“In the spring, we have potholes after winter,” says Gary Moore, judge-executive of Boone County, Ky. “Those same crews are trying to help at vaccination sites.”

The top officials at the National Association of Counties held a Zoom call with Governing, discussing the challenges counties face as the pandemic enters its second year and how the federal aid will help them meeting those challenges. Moore is NACo’s president, Johnson its first vice president.

The Trump administration engaged in more direct outreach with counties than any other presidency of the modern era. NACo officers say they’re enjoying good relations thus far with the Biden White House, holding regular discussions with top brass, including biweekly calls with the administration’s vaccine rollout team.

“Counties in many states have the total responsibility for public health,” says Matt Chase, NACo’s executive director. “Even those not directly putting shots in arms are providing logistical support.”

The next big investment county officials are looking for Washington to make will be infrastructure. The federal gas tax hasn’t been enough to keep the highway trust fund full for years. Billions more are needed for water, sewer and broadband.

Getting a big package through on top of the trillions already devoted to stimulus and the COVID-19 response is going to be a tough sell. “I don’t have any idea of how they’re going to solve that,” concedes Denise Winfrey, a commissioner in Will County, Ill., and second vice president of NACo.

The continuing pain from the pandemic has been felt profoundly at the county level. In some places, there are backups at the morgue that can delay burials for weeks. Johnson notes that one of DeKalb County’s first uses for the federal money will be extending an oversubscribed eviction prevention program.

“The issue of opioids has been on the back burner, but now that we’re coming out of the pandemic, we’re concerned about overdoses, along with other mental health issues,” Moore says.

Counties as entities also face ongoing managerial challenges. Employees who must work in person are still sometimes sidelined by coronavirus infections and quarantines. But the federal money should prevent further erosion of personnel. More than 1 million state and local government jobs have been lost over the past year, but the stimulus dollars mean many if not most of them can be brought back.

“Counties that were facing layoffs are now not going to have to lay off police officers or firefighters or people who patch up potholes,” Johnson says.

Counties may have been behind the curve pre-pandemic when it comes to investing in technology, but they’ve been forced by circumstances to play a game of catch-up, buying laptops and licenses for suddenly scattered employees.

Now, processes that were almost invariably done in person – permitting, zoning, meetings with far-flung vendors – will stay online in many places long after the pandemic is over. “It was a big investment for us,” Winfrey says. “Going forward, it’s going to be a big piece of how we continue to connect.”

She underscores the point that the stimulus funding seems like a lot of money, until it gets divided up between the many areas of need – education, rental assistance, help for small businesses on the verge of going bust. In her own county, some of the funds will go to struggling nonprofits that have been unable to conduct in-person fundraising events even as they’re carrying out the work of providing residents with shots and other medications and care.

Winfrey and the other NACo officials stress the need to balance speed – getting vaccines into as many arms as possible, as quickly as possible – with equity – making sure underserved communities have increased amounts of access. “We’ve opened up a call center so we can take more calls for appointments,” Winfrey says. “We need to get information out to Black and brown communities, information from people they can trust.”

Although demand for vaccines still badly outstrips supply, it won’t be too long before county-level messaging efforts switch to trying to convince individuals reluctant to get shots of the importance of doing so – for their own health and the community’s well-being. 

With many governors lifting restrictions before the population is fully vaccinated, or as fully vaccinated as it’s going to be, county leaders recognize they face a continuing tug of war between safety recommendations from health officials and public demands to reopen.

Moore, the Boone County judge-executive, says jurisdictions within his county are making decisions now about what can open safely this summer in terms of pools and festivals and the like. They won’t be able to satisfy everyone.

“Our citizens are ready to go,” Moore says. “There’s a pent-up demand for getting back to normal.”

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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