Last year's Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act did not list categories of eligible expenses for which Butler County municipalities could be reimbursed.
Instead, the CARES Act had three guidelines: The costs had to be necessary and incurred due to COVID-19; they could not have been accounted for in the budget after March 27, 2020; and had to have been incurred between March 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2021.
That, on its face, covers a broader swath of possible expenses than the four categories of costs under this year's American Rescue Plan Act. But it also had one downside: The CARES Act funds were reimbursements, rather than cash to the municipalities.
Some municipalities didn't have significant expenses directly attributable to the coronavirus pandemic. For instance, Seven Fields originally requested just $7,500 for reimbursement in the first round of funding. It ended up, however, receiving nearly $120,000 in the first round.
That difference was due to oddities in the guidance about the CARES Act published in the Federal Register, and Delta Development informing the municipalities of their allocation and eligible expenses that may not have been obvious.
The largest portion of reimbursement requests were not for personal protective equipment, remote-work technology or office renovations. Instead, the No. 1 reimbursable expense was the amount municipalities spent on police.
Under the CARES Act, nearly every dollar spent on police wages and some benefits were reimbursable. For municipalities that have their own police force — or partner with others for police work — that typically meant a larger amount of their maximum allocation was available to them.
“In the northern tier of the county, there's a lot of those municipalities that do not have a police force and are supported by the Pennsylvania State Police,” Mark Gordon, county chief of economic development, said.
Jackson Township, for example, only submitted police expenditures for reimbursement and reached its allocation of more than $265,000 across two rounds. But Cherry Township, which was allocated $40,007 in the first round, applied for just $1,316.
Butler City, with a paid fire department, also submitted for those expenses, city clerk Mindy Gall said. She noted while some private employers were reimbursed for quarantined employees under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the city wasn't eligible for such reimbursements — and the costs extended beyond paying the ill or quarantined worker. Gall added there were a number of quarantined workers during 2020.
“We have the fire and police, and if people were out we're going to have a ton of overtime,” she said. “It's expensive to have the protection that we've all grown so accustomed to.”
In sum, the city applied for more than $2.7 million in expenses and received about $907,500.
Beyond police expenses, the largest reimbursement was for coronavirus protection, Gordon said, including personal protective equipment, some remodeling expenses and plexiglass.
“As an example, one of the things a lot of people lost sight of during the pandemic (was) the cost of plexiglass — a 4-foot-by-8-foot sheet — was horrendous, if you could get it,” he said.
Franklin Township, for example, sought about $2,500 in round one for a plexiglass transactional window that they said “allowed the township office to remain open during the entire pandemic.” Prospect also asked for $2,044 for a service window — and about $14,000 for a new HVAC system.
On the other hand, due to what was reimbursable, some either sought relatively small amounts or didn't apply at all.
“We had some municipalities that reached out and said, 'In all honesty, we really didn't have any appreciable reimbursable expenses related to COVID,'” Gordon said. “Some of these small rural municipalities that maybe only have a part-time secretary or an office that's only staffed two days a week, they didn't have a major disruption or any major expenditures for hand sanitizer, for social distancing, for putting up plexiglass.”
Shawn Pugh, Slippery Rock borough manager, said a disinfectant fogger the borough purchased — and for which it was reimbursed — was a helpful tool to prevent the spread of the virus in the police department and among borough employees in addition to the disinfectant spray and wipes.
“There were two or three separate instances where our police came in contact with somebody with COVID, and I was just able to take that fogger out and fog the police car and the whole building,” he said.
With the threat of an employee contracting COVID-19 and being out of commission for two weeks or more, some municipalities sought reimbursement for technology costs allowing their employees to work remotely if needed.
“It took us into the 21st century,” Pugh said.
Slippery Rock Borough received more than $22,000 in reimbursement for technology costs, and was one of several municipalities that sought recompense for costs associated with computers, network and other technological assets.
Pugh said the CARES Act funds allowed borough employees to work remotely if the need arose.
“It really ended up helping out,” he said. “One of our employees ended up with COVID. Obviously, they got the time off but they were able to work at home with the technology we bought, and it kept us up and running.”
Pugh noted the borough would not have been able to make those purchases if not for the CARES funds.
“We were down probably 15% in revenue last year, and that CARES money helped to pay salaries and bought some much-needed personal protective equipment and equipment that would let us work remotely,” he said. “It was unbelievable.”