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CARES deadline approaching

With 2020 coming to a close, there’s not much time left for Virginia localities to allocate the remainder of their Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding received over the course of the last eight months.

For Cumberland County, that means approximately $500,000 of unspent funds. And there’s likely only weeks left to determine how and if that money can be used.

According to County Administrator Don Unmussig, Cumberland received $866,529 in CARES funding in May with an identical allocation in August for a total of $1,733,058.

On Monday, Dec. 21, Unmussig said Cumberland had somewhere around $500,000 left unspent. But the county can’t just use up the remainder of those funds however it pleases.

Unmussig said Cumberland luckily has not been as heavily impacted by large numbers of COVID-19 cases as other counties, and thus far Cumberland County has focused its CARES allocations on items of public health, safety and food distribution. The county spent much of its funding to help make Cumberland Community Cares/Delma’s Pantry’s operation capable of supporting the more than 300% increase in its monthly client base after hardships encountered during the pandemic meant many more county residents were in need of food assistance.

Funds were also expended to help the county’s fire and rescue operations, the sheriff’s office, the registrar’s office, Piedmont Regional Jail and county polling places. The county also used funds to make necessary, extensive modifications to county facilities to better protect the public and the employees from the spread of COVID-19.

CARES money was also used to upgrade the courthouse facility and its electronics capability to enable operations to be conducted remotely as needed, according to Unmussig. The county has also put money into broadband funding.

While the county has around half a million dollars left to spend, time’s running out to spend it. According to a Dec. 8 notice from Virginia Secretary of Finance Aubrey L. Layne Jr., the period for using CARES funds expires Dec. 30.

Federal guidelines allow a liquidation period following the closure of the grant period, meaning state and local governments are allowed to continue to pay for qualifying expenses that occurred prior to December 30.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is allowing local governments to continue paying qualifying expenses until January 15, after which local governments are expected to return any unspent balances no later than January 22 of 2021.

Unmussig said while the county is looking hard to see what else can be done with the CARES money before it must be returned, there are multiple constraints on how the funds can be spent.

A memo from the state dated May 12 outlines that COVID relief funding can only be used to cover costs that: are necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID–19); were not accounted for in the budget most recently approved as of March 27, 2020 (the date of enactment of the CARES Act) for the state or government; and were incurred during the period that begins on March 1, 2020, and ends on December 30.

Unmussig said the state has more or less left it up to localities to decide what is or isn’t an acceptable way to spend funds. But the May 12 memo also dictates that counties may be forced to return funds to the federal government if it is later determined by auditors that funds were spent for purposes that did not qualify.

Essentially, if the state does not feel counties spent their CARES money in accordance with the above guidelines, that money will be taken back via state aid intercept.

Unmussig said as a result of this, Cumberland’s strategy for COVID spending has been to only spend CARES Act funding on things that are clearly acceptable to the state.

“Everybody’s strategy has been structured around compliance, and the constraints that have been put on for this have been nothing short of confusing,” he said.

“There are auditors from the state that will be coming behind us and reviewing our spending,” he added. “Cumberland cannot afford to be in a ‘state aid intercept’ situation.”

To date, there’s been no move by the state to extend the deadline to make use of CARES funds. Unmussig said Monday the county is still looking into how the remainder of funds can be spent.