As the County Council continues its deliberations over County Executive Marc Elrich’s proposed operating and capital budgets, county officials said remaining federal assistance should continue to be spent on social services, business assistance and similar areas.
That federal assistance is coming in two forms—reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for COVID-19-related expenses such as for personal protective equipment, and money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), signed into law by President Joe Biden in March 2021 to provide economic relief due to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
County Council members received a briefing Tuesday on how much funding remain in both those tranches. According to council staff and county officials, Montgomery County has received $54.5 million in FEMA reimbursements and is anticipating another $10.4 million once it passes through the state government.
There is another potential $91.5 million in reimbursements–$38.9 million of which are in the FEMA pre-approval process, and $50.9 million that could be submitted. The county has submitted reimbursements for masks, rapid test kits and other COVID-19 supplies.
The FEMA money has been the subject of debate between the County Council and administration in recent years. County Council Vice President Andrew Friedson (D-Dist. 1) was one member critical of the administration, saying that county officials deviated from the county’s fiscal practices when anticipating reimbursement from FEMA.
On Tuesday, Friedson said he didn’t want to “re-litigate” those past issues, and wanted to focus on the remaining reimbursements.
Elrich’s administration and County Council members do align on spending the remaining ARPA money to bolster the county’s social safety net. The council has appropriated more than $193 million of that money, and set aside another $6.45 million for food security and $4.5 million for affordable housing efforts.
During a news briefing Wednesday, Elrich said that once the federal money is spent, county officials need to consider how they will continue providing these services.
“These are real needs that, if not funded in this [operating] budget, are going to go unmet in the community,” Elrich said, referring to food security, rental assistance and other social services.
County Council members Will Jawando (D-At-large) and Natali Fani-González (D-Dist. 6) asked questions Tuesday about the business rental assistance funds. County officials allocated $2 million for those businesses that earned half a million dollars or less in annual revenue prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Council staff said that $340,000 of those funds remain unspent. Fani-González said that while the assistance is appreciated, she knocked on doors of several small businesses while campaigning for office last year and many owners didn’t know how to apply for the assistance.
“This is shocking to me,” Fani-González said of the unspent funds. “The need is out there, we just don’t know how to ask, or how to share that we have the funds.”
County Council member Marilyn Balcombe (D-Dist. 2), who was president and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, had similar concerns. She said that when she was president, she worked with businesses to apply for assistance, and found that the criteria for businesses—which included half a million dollars in annual revenue or less; and establishments not in food service, professional services, religious businesses, medical practices and childcare—were narrow.
Like Fani-González, Balcombe said that better communication would have helped many businesses.
“Businesses that got money were businesses were engaged with formal business associations … which meant that the majority of businesses didn’t know that there was money even out there,” Balcombe said.
County officials said they would take councilmembers’ concerns and figure out how to better communicate with businesses moving forward.
The County Council continue its budget deliberations in the coming weeks, and itneeds to pass an operating and capital budget by the end of May, per the county charter.