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Tennessee's two largest cities, Nashville and Memphis, are expected to directly receive between $100 million and $125 million in relief through Congress' just-approved $2 trillion coronavirus response act.
But federal aid for medium-size Hamilton County and Chattanooga governments, as well as smaller local governments, must largely go first to the state before flowing down to them in designated categories.
That's because of provisions limiting direct federal aid solely to municipal and county governments with populations of 500,000 or more people.
"One of the things I was unable to get was direct federal aid" for local governments under a half million people, said a frustrated U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican who sits on the Appropriations Committee in the Democratic-run House.
"Let me be specific, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Oak Ridge — every city in the state with the exception of Memphis and Nashville will be dependent on going through the state for [some of] this $3 billion that we will be giving to the state," Fleischmann said.
Fleischmann said he believes the state will be getting $2.8 billion to $3 billion under the massive spending bill which addresses economic and public health woes in the wake of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, the National League of Cities estimates that Nashville and Memphis will see between $100 million and $125 million under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) with its efforts to fight COVID-19 and spur economic stability. Final House approval came Friday.
Emphasizing the situation over dollars going first to state government, Fleischmann said it's not Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's fault. The governor simply "inherits the bill. So the state is going to have to work especially hard to get the affected dollars out to smaller cities, mid-size cities and larger cities in Tennessee that do not get direct aid."
Lee is "acutely aware of this," Fleischmann said. "I spoke with him and he is being proactive. He's already speaking with the mayors of the counties and the cities and he is prepared for that."
Gillum Ferguson, the governor's spokesman, said "we're still determining how exactly funds will be allotted" under the CARES Act and that Lee intends to keep the public "updated as that gets ironed out."
Mayor Coppinger: "We happen to be the ones in the middle"
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said, "right now we're trying to deal with a medical crisis in our community and, yes, funding is always an issue, and we are concerned about resources as far as the funding. But we have to handle the task at hand before we can worry too much about that."
"We fall into a group that's not 500,000 or more but we're 367,000 people, so we're not small enough for the other funds which are for groups of 200,000 or something," Coppinger said. "We happen to be the ones in the middle that have less funding and resource opportunities, but we always are, so we're ready to make our case when the time comes. A lot of our resources go to help people in other states because we are regional because they come into our hospitals and come into our community to work, so I'm asking the federal government to take that into consideration."
At Gov. Lee's request, state lawmakers in their abbreviated legislative session included several measures to brace the state as the coronavirus spread.
First, the governor scrapped most of his recommended spending of a $1 billion surplus, with about a third of it going to bolster the state's Rainy Day emergency reserve fund.
He also created a $150 million fund to address COVID-19 issues. Hamilton County doctors recently put out a plea to the governor for some of that funding for COVID-19 testing, personal protection gear for medical staff and similar needs.
"As the governor has mentioned, we'd like to ensure we're utilizing the federal money first before turning to additional state dollars," Lee spokesman Ferguson noted.
The governor has also devoted money and resources to less-populated, poor areas of the state. For example, last week he mobilized the National Guard to assist with expanded testing efforts in rural areas by assigning 250 Guard members, including 150 medical personnel, to assist 35 remote assessment facilities in rural areas.
Lee in his budget also doubled his originally proposed $100 million infrastructure grant program for cities and counties to $200 million and included provisions for their ability to use some funds for disease response.
With the majority of the relief funding anticipated for counties of Hamilton's population range set to come through the state, Coppinger is working with local state lawmakers to ensure the county's needs are heard.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said, "there's still a lot to be determined. As I understand it, the justification for setting the bar at 500,000 was that there were systems in place for the larger cities to handle the funding directly.
"But we will still be eligible for the same types of relief that the large cities are," Berke added. "Of course, we would have preferred to have received the money directly because it gets to us quicker and we would have more certainty on how much we would be receiving."
He said cities lobbied at the federal level to have themselves treated similarly to how community development block grants are already distributed. That allows direct grants to localities with populations of 50,000 or above, the mayor noted.
Berke said city revenues are stable at this point but the money will be needed for responses, especially in the new fiscal year budget that takes effect July 1.
State Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said, "obviously I think we'll try to treat it equitably for cities that aren't that big but have had a similar impact by the coronavirus," for Knoxville and Chattanooga. "I would expect the state to do that. I certainly would advocate for that."
And Watson said that given the circumstances he also expects state officials "to try and get those dollars flowing as quickly as we possibly can. And hopefully now that the bill is now passed and the president has signed it, they haven't put regulatory restrictions in this the way they did with the previous stimulus plan back in 2008 so the states can allocate these resources to the places that they need to go."
Berke said he is carefully documenting city expenditures in areas ranging from COVID-19 cost responses to city workers' overtime stemming from various emergencies.
While Hamilton County has a fairly modest urban population of just over 360,000, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department confirmed 32 cases of the virus in just the first two weeks of test results. The department provides medical care for many other local cities and towns, creating a unique set of financial challenges.
Coppinger said, "we're doing what we can to make ourselves eligible for funding, a good example of that is how we have started doing this testing here in the county, among other steps."
While he said he's naturally worried about the amount of immediate or guaranteed funds and is talking to state and federal representatives regularly, Coppinger, who spent nearly three decades in the Chattanooga Fire Department, said funding can't be the number one concern during a crisis.
"What we have is an emergency, and something I've known all my life because of my career is you first have to make the quick actions to handle the emergency, document what you do and then you have to, after it's over, be ready to plead your case on why you took those actions and why they were necessary for the community to try and get some of that money back," he said. "We have a problem. The country has a problem. And we'll all argue over funding afterward, but we're going to take whatever steps we need to in order to handle this crisis, and we'll worry about the money later."
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