The Senate County Affairs and Municipalities committees met in a joint session Tuesday to discuss county and municipal needs related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated economic shutdown.
The Mississippi Legislature has scheduled a week of hearings on how to disburse $1.25 billion in federal funds received under the from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that was passed in March by Congress. There is already a proposal to provide $100 million in relief to small businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
Any spending of the $1.25 billion will have to comply with guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of the Treasury or be subject to a clawback. Lost tax revenue under the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t considered a reimbursable expense with CARES ACT funds according to federal guidelines, which specify the funds are only to be used for costs related to the direct mitigation of the virus.
Chris Bowen is the District 5 supervisor for Forrest County and the president of the Mississippi Supervisors Association. He briefed the committee on issues facing counties with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The services of county governments are exposed to the frontline of this pandemic,” Bowen said. “Our local law enforcement, court systems and jails, emergency management, road and bridge crews, garbage pickup and other various county services bring our employees into direct contact with the general public daily.
“The vast majority of county services didn’t just remain open, they were essential services to society and proved we are the safety net for our municipalities and our citizens.”
He also said the association has received correspondence from counties throughout the state that have accrued unbudgeted and unexpected costs due to the pandemic. He said those costs continue to accumulate for many counties. These include professional cleaning services, disinfectants, personal protective equipment, hours of overtime and hazard pay for employees, legal expenses, tech upgrades for courthouses and increased labor costs for law enforcement and other county agencies.
With jails unable to release inmates to work details, Bowen said, counties have had to hire outside workers to man garbage trucks and pick up trash from roadways.
Mississippi Municipal League executive director Shari Veazey told the joint committee that it’d be difficult to narrow down a specific number on the costs incurred by municipalities as a result of COVID-19.
“My concern is that this not over by a long shot,” Veazey said. “The cities continue to have expenses (related to COVID-19) and if there is another outbreak in the fall, we’re going to overlook some things that we’re going to have to do in the late summer or the fall.”
Veazey said PPE purchases have been a big cost for cities, as well as overtime for first responders (police and fire departments). She said public works departments have also been hit with unanticipated costs since more people staying at home and utilizing them. She also said that landfill fees have increased since people, stuck at home due to the pandemic, have cleaned out garages and added more solid waste for pickup.
The MML represents 291 cities and towns in the state and 85 percent of those municipalities have populations of 10,000 or less.