Back in August when Minnetrista received its Coronavirus Relief Funds of $579K I wrote about the city’s plans to spend the bulk of the funds on previously budgeted (pre-pandemic) Public Safety payroll despite authorizing the document below stating the city would not use the funds on previously budgeted, non-COVID19 related expenses.
Since that time guidance from the feds and state have given local governments permission to presume that their public safety personnel were substantially dedicated to COVID19 related activities without documenting or justifying the expenditures, and, if they were, they can legally use the funds for those purposes regardless of when they were budgeted.
The fact is, however, that Minnetrista didn’t have Public Safety personnel substantially dedicated to COVID19 related activities, that is if you use the dictionary definition of “substantially.” When asked at a council meeting if he could show we did, our Director of Public Safety said “If I had to prove it, no.”
Many hours of discussions followed, some centered around the definition of “substantial” and exploring other ways to spend the funds on IT infrastructure to support remote access, school district needs, food shelf needs or support for employees or businesses in the community impacted by the lock downs. The council did ultimately decide to give $20K each to the Westonka Food Shelf and WeCAN which are legitimate uses of the funds.
The easiest thing to do, with the majority of the funds (roughly $500K), was to simply take the money and apply it to the city’s Public Safety payroll knowing the city wouldn’t need to document anything to prove the expenses were COVID related. I’m sure the Mayor and most of the Council figured the end (money in our reserve fund) justified the means (pretending Minnetrista had personnel substantially dedicated to COVID when it did not).
No doubt there will be criticism and claims made that I would have returned the funds to the county but that is not what I would have done and I stated that at our council meeting Monday night. If we had acted back in July when we first learned of this funding we could have, over the five months given (August thru December), spent these funds on a number of other legitimate things that could’ve helped our community work remotely, helped our schools, given funds to businesses or individuals impacted by the coronavirus lock down, purposes for which these relief funds were intended. It seemed to be a foregone conclusion on the part of staff and most of the council, however, that the easiest solution was best.
I know the city has needs and will find a good purpose for using the half million dollars now in our reserves. That is not the point. The point is I could not in good conscience, knowing the city did not have any personnel that had been substantially dedicated to COVID19 activities, say that we did. The resolution passed 4-1 and can be found on page 202 of the council agenda packet for 10/19/2020.
Others will claim it was a perfectly legal thing to do, and it probably was, but legal doesn’t always equate with principled or moral and I’ll leave readers to ponder that point.