It’s use it or lose it when it comes to federal CARES Act funds, but so far Honolulu has only spent about $72 million of its $387 million distribution.
Nearly 60% of the city’s CARES Act funds had been allocated as of Friday — leaving some $165.4 million still pending.
The CARES Act, which was authorized by Congress, requires that payments from the Coronavirus Relief Fund only be used to cover expenses that were incurred from March 1 to Dec. 30. The city received the funds April 23 as part of the state’s $1.25 billion allocation from a $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund established in the CARES Act.
The city’s response and recovery strategy uses the funds to “build a COVID-safe community, get businesses and households back on their feet, and to prepare for a new COVID-era economy,” Joshua Stanbro, the city’s chief resilience officer, told the city Committee on Economic Assistance and Revitalization on Thursday. Stambro reported that about 35% of the funds have been committed.
Details of the spending are available at oneoahu.org/dashboard, an initiative launched last week by the city to provide the public with a real-time view of how it allocates and spends CARES funds.
“We must quickly and effectively spend our CARES fund to help individuals and businesses who are struggling as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” Mayor Kirk Caldwell said in a statement. “A new virtual dashboard is an important step for providing the public with greater transparency so they can understand where our recovery dollars are going, including to our Small Business Relief and Recovery Fund, and other important community programs.”
According to the dashboard, small business assistance represents about 66% of the CARES funds that have been spent and distributed into the Oahu community to date.
Honolulu Council member Tommy Waters, chairman of the city’s Committee on Economic Assistance and Revitalization, said he’s pleased the city has gotten money to small businesses. However, he said, he wants to see even more CARES Act funds going toward recovery.
He said he’s also worried that the city isn’t expending funds quickly enough to meet the December deadline, which could lead to lost opportunities.
Stanbro defended the city’s CARES Act spending pace as in line with its peers. Stanbro told the committee that records from the Hawaii Data Collaborative show the city has spent way more of its CARES Act funding than the neighbor island counties and the state.
“If this info is correct from the Hawaii Data Collaborative it means that 87% of the dollars, the CARES money assigned to the state of Hawaii — that has actually gone out onto the street, that has gotten into someone’s pocket, that has gone to businesses — has been executed by this administration since April 23,” he said.
Stanbro acknowledged that cumbersome recipient qualifications and other rules sometimes have prevented the city from releasing the funds as promptly as it would have liked. He said the latest surge of coronavirus cases also highlights a need for the city to be “flexible and nimble,” and to assume responsibilities for other jurisdictions like the state Department of Health when gaps become apparent.
“Some of the things that we had planned on doing are likely not going to be able to get done now because we have had to try to take funds and reallocate them to do contact tracing, to do hotel isolation, to do increased testing,” Stanbro said. “We also are looking at how we can bring in even more testing capacity now that the federal surge has gone.”
Waters said he understands why the city administration is tempted to hold back funds in the event of another surge, but pointed out that December is less than three months away.
He also opined that much of the city’s CARES Act spending to date has “over- emphasized enforcement” of the pandemic’s emergency orders. He said the Honolulu Police Department has gotten $32 million, or roughly 8%, of the city’s CARES Act funding. In comparison, Waters said roughly $2.4 million in checks had been distributed as of last week to applicants of the city’s $25 million Household Hardship Relief Program.
“We’ve got people hurting out there. We’ve got people who need food and help,” Waters said. “Look at all this money spent on police to lock people down and keep them in their house when only $2.4 million has been expended to help them.”
Waters said he doesn’t object to HPD expenditures that fight crime or keep first responders safe. But he questioned the breadth of HPD expenses that seem to support the pandemic’s emergency orders like $13.8 million in overtime, $4.6 million in contract positions, $623,576 on paddy wagons, and $118,102 for riot training tools.
“If we are spending all this money for HPD to enforce a shutdown that’s money misspent,” he said. “It doesn’t get us to recovery. It doesn’t make us safer like contact tracing, testing and standing up quarantine and isolation facilities.”
HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said the overtime is being used to staff the COVID hotline, fill in for officers who are required to self-quarantine or self-isolate, assist with food distribution and other COVID- related events, and to staff the POST facility for homeless persons who are quarantining for two weeks so that they can qualify to go into a shelter.
The contract positions are 150 temporary police services officer positions, Yu said.
“These positions will assist with various duties such as sterilizing vehicles and equipment, clerical support, transporting supplies, assisting at POST, and customer service related duties,” she said. “Taking over these duties helps to keep patrol officers on the road.”
Still, Waters said he’d like to see more CARES money going toward temporary housing like Hawaii island built after heightened volcanic eruptions wreaked economic havoc. He also supports repurposing buildings to add health care capacity so hospitals don’t get overwhelmed.
Waters, who represents Waikiki, said he’d prefer more CARES Act funding go toward pre-arrivals and post-arrivals testing rather than enforcement of a seemingly “unenforceable quarantine.”
“If the state can’t do it, let’s do it,” he said. “That’s what our tourism industry expects from us to safely reopen our economy. Instead we are spending money on enforcing a stay-at-home order.”
Waters said he supports the current stay-at-home order, but questions whether it would have been necessary if CARES Act spending had been more proactive.