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Sherrod Brown Urges Government To Loosen Coronavirus Funding Restrictions

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, left, and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, speak to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018.
J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, left, and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, speak to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is calling on the Treasury Department to give local leaders greater flexibility when it comes to spending federal rescue funding.

Brown's call comes amid a steady drumbeat for local support from the federal government. Both Brown and his colleague Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) have both stressed in recent weeks the importance of more funding for Ohio citiesthat rely heavily on income taxes.

Brown says they’re also urging the Treasury Department to allow cities to spend existing funding on a broader array of needs.

“Cities can only spend the money on coronavirus-related programs and activities,” Brown says. “When we are saying the big loss for cities is coronavirus has caused huge drops in revenues.”

The first wave of money under the CARES Act earmarked money for the states and a couple dozen of the largest cities in the country. Columbus was the only Ohio city to receive direct funding.

State leaders are planning to divvy up at least some of the $2.26 billion they received among municipal governments, but city leaders are still worried about their balance sheets.

Lancaster mayor David Scheffler says revised budgets with reductions of 10% in every city department are on his desk, and direct funding will be “critical” in forestalling staffing cuts in public safety.

The Republican mayor also notes they’re only eligible for funding if they exceed their current budget due to coronavirus-related efforts. That makes it difficult to recoup funding for legitimate expenses like a spike in overtime after six firefighters came down with COVID-19.

“We still haven’t exceed the overtime budget for the 12 months of 2020, so we’re not eligible for reimbursement for any of those costs that we can directly attribute to the virus,” Scheffler says.

Assuming the Treasury Department clears up the eligibility question, Scheffler is hopeful some of Ohio’s CARES Act funding will make its way to Lancaster. But he says state leaders haven’t explained how they’ll disperse it, and there are a lot of mouths to feed.

Scheffler says additional federal funding may be needed.

“What we need is probably $4 million, which is not a small amount of money, but it seems insignificant compared to the $36 million of checks that were deposited into accounts here in Lancaster recently," he says.

That funding, in the form of $1,200 checks for individuals, was another part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. Despite approving another three multi-billion dollar relief packages—including one for $484 billion less than a week ago—lawmakers say more funding is on the way.

Brown and Portman say they’ll argue for some of it to go directly to local governments.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.