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What are central Ohio governments and schools doing as pandemic relief funds dry up?

 A sheet of uncut $100 bills is inspected during the printing process at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing Western Currency Facility in Fort Worth, Texas, on Sept. 24, 2013.
Marla Pollitt

In 2021, the federal government handed out $350 billion to state and local governments to help them cope with and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, time is running out for those governments to spend the money or figure out how it will impact them when the funds are gone.

The city of Columbus received $187 million of federal COVID relief money. Mayor Andrew Ginther said the city wanted to use the money to make sure the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic was more impactful and equitable than the recovery from the Great Recession.

“There were communities, particularly, communities of color, that hadn't fully recovered from the Great Recession until COVID,” Ginther said. “And now many of those same folks feel and are facing economic scenarios and challenges, you know, putting them all the way back a decade.”

The city put millions toward one-time small business grants. More than $2 million went to the redesign of three city parks in the Hilltop area and the southwest and Mideast sides of the city. The city also helped non-profits like YMCA, YWCA, Faith Mission and Mid-Ohio Food Bank maintain or even expand their services.

“We tried to be very clear with folks that this is not money that they should build into their budgets,” Ginther said.

While mostly looking at short-term or one-time investments, Columbus also brought on more permanent police officers and firefighters.

And Ginther acknowledged that some programs, like amplified youth intervention efforts, may suffer in the absence of the federal dollars.

“When the rescue plan dollars run out, it's hard to speculate, obviously. You know, we're a city that has to balance its budget based on the resources we have,” Ginther said.

Local governments have until Dec. 31 to decide how to spend the money, and then two years after that to finish spending the funds. Columbus has around $57 million left, and Ginther and the city finance department promise all will be used by the deadline.

Franklin County

Franklin County received about $255 million. County Administrator Kenneth Wilson says the county has spent or committed around 80% of the money.

He said the much of the money went to community partners as the county also kept in mind that it was dealing with a one-time infusion of funds.

Even so, there will be impacts when the federal relief funds are gone.

“There will be some moderation in investments in particular areas,” Wilson said.

For example, less money will be available for emergency rental assistance and eviction protections. Wilson said the need won’t decrease when the supplemental programs are gone, which means the county will have to work with Columbus and suburbs to build more affordable housing and seek investments to fill the gap.

“There will be some moderation in investments in particular areas."
-Franklin County Administrator Kenneth Wilson

States and cities

At the state level, all of Ohio’s $5.4 billion has been obligated. The biggest slice of pie – about $1.4 billion – went to the state unemployment compensation fund.

Ohio Poverty Law Center and Advocates for Ohio’s Future tracked the spending. Ohio Poverty Law Center Director Susan Jagers says generally, governments first used money for pandemic health needs.

The state then turned to infrastructure investments. Cities had a different problem.

“The state didn't experience a budget deficit at all during the pandemic, but that wasn't true of local governments,” Jagers said.

So local governments – Columbus and Franklin County included – used some of their money to pad their budgets during those lean pandemic years.

Columbus so far has put around $30 million toward replacing revenue that was lost during the pandemic. Ginther said typically about 80% of city services are funded by income tax, which is paid where you work, not where you live. During the pandemic, many people were working from home.

Jagers said the money given to nonprofits and small businesses was also meant to help level budgets.

“A lot of it was to help them fill budget needs, but also to address needs that were higher during the pandemic,” she said.

Difficult decisions for schools

School districts got a lot of federal relief money to help them cope with new and complicated COVID-19 challenges, like boosting health and safety protocols, developing remote learning, and addressing students’ mental health needs.

Federal help for schools came in three waves in 2020 and 2021. The deadline to spend the last of the money is the end of September – and school districts are already facing difficult decisions.

Middletown City Schools, north of Cincinnati, are laying off 43 of the more than 100 staff members it brought on with federal funds. Superintendent Deborah Houser told WVXU in Cincinnati that districts around the country are considering doing the same.

“I guarantee you they’re making the decisions right now as we speak,” Houser said.

In Columbus, part of last year’s successful $100 million levy will keep a slew of relief-funded positions.

While campaigning, then-School Board President Jennifer Adair said the district used its $455 million to renovate schools and add translators, counselors, social workers and custodians. She said the additional staff made a big difference.

“And so, they were put forth by our administration through that analysis to ask our community to reinvest in them,” Adair said.

Even with the passage of the levy, the district still plans to eliminate more than half of the 650 positions that had been added.

“I don't know that we quote unquote, won't miss it, but because we didn't use it to fill existing holes or bridge existing budgets, the loss of the ESSER funding is not going to exacerbate or create any emergencies for us.”
- Ryan Jenkins, Olentangy Schools treasurer

The Olentangy School District received $21 million in COVID-19 relief funds.

Olentangy treasurer Ryan Jenkins said most of the district’s money paid for a committed distance learning program, but now students are back in-person.

“I don't know that we quote unquote, won't miss it, but because we didn't use it to fill existing holes or bridge existing budgets, the loss of the ESSER funding is not going to exacerbate or create any emergencies for us,” Jenkins said.

ESSER stands for Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief, the formal name for the school recovery funds.

Jenkins said the district found money in its budget to keep math specialists that were brought on with the remaining funds.

Olentangy will ask voters to increase property taxes with a $350 million levy next month. Jenkins, however, maintains the levy request has nothing to do with the evaporation of the relief money.

Jenkins said the levy will instead help pay for anticipated significant growth in the district. The district expects the student population to grow by 5,000 in the next 10 years.

Allie Vugrincic is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She comes to Columbus from her hometown of Warren, Ohio, where she was a reporter, features writer and photographer for four years at the Tribune Chronicle and The Vindicator newspapers.