By Blake Freas
WASHINGTON – Mayors around the state said they welcome the $441 million in COVID-19 relief funding released by the state this week – they just wish they could have welcomed it sooner.
“The fact that this has taken so long, it’s sad,” said Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans, one of several local leaders who said this week that they wish the money had come directly from the federal government and had not been filtered through the state.
Their comments came as the state sent local jurisdictions $441 million in relief funds from the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which was signed into law two months ago. States and jurisdictions with more than 500,000 residents got their CARES Act money directly from the federal government, but smaller jurisdictions had to wait.
Gov. Doug Ducey announced Wednesday that the state would use about $600 million of its $1.8 billion allocation from the federal government for towns and counties.
The first $441 million, in what he called the AZCares Fund, was divided among jurisdictions by population, and another $150 million will be available under the Arizona Express Pay Program, designed to help local governments while they wait on federal reimbursement for expenses like COVID-19 tests and personal protective equipment.
As he made the announcement Wednesday, Ducey was surrounded by a handful of mayors from around the state who thanked the governor for the money, which they said will be best handled at the local level.
“The governor and his staff have reached out to myself and other mayors multiple times and allowed us to share local concerns and to advocate for our fair share of funding,” Chandler Mayor Kevin Hartke said in a statement after the AZCares Fund was released.
He thanked Ducey in the statement, saying residents and businesses “are in need of additional assistance during this pandemic.” He said the city would seek citizen input on how to spend the money and make recommendations to the city council.
Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels, one of those who was at the AZCares Fund news conference, said the money came just in time. She said the city council has a budget approval meeting next week where it will probably discuss the new money, but that fuller talks about how to use it will most likely wait until August.
But other mayors said they cannot afford to wait that long.
“Time is of the essence to get funding,” said Tolleson Mayor Anna Tovar.
She said her town needs money for more testing, noting that Tolleson is home to the only meatpacking plant in the state.
Evans noted that in Flagstaff, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has been steadily rising in the months since the CARES Act was passed, noting that workers aged 20-44 have been hit particularly hard, with 42% of that age group testing positive.
She and Tovar joined other mayors on a call Thursday organized by Democratic Senate candidate Mark Kelly to talk about the aid to local jurisdictions. For many of them, timing was not the only problem with the aid.
Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland said the money for smaller jurisdictions, which was allocated by population, amounted to $115 per person. Larger jurisdictions like Phoenix and Tucson, who got their money directly from the federal government, received the equivalent of $174 per person, he said.
“The state seems to know what is best for us,” McFarland said.
Like others, he said the money is badly needed. The stream of bad news from small businesses in Casa Grande “was like drinking water through a firehose some days,” McFarland said.
Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell said that while his town was waiting for its share of the CARES Act money, it ran a “Buy now. Save local” campaign in an effort to help small businesses.
The Pinal County Board of Supervisors was on the verge of suing the federal government over the CARES Act money when Ducey announced the AZCares Fund this week.
Board Chairman Anthony Smith said in a videotaped statement Thursday that the county had dropped its plans to sue after the release of the money, which Ducey said should be in the hands of local governments by Thursday at the latest.
While the county was glad to get the money, Smith said it hopes there will be an additional distribution down the road. But he went on in his statement to say that the governor is a good man, good governor and that “we believe he will do the right thing in the long run.”