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By Shawn Raymundo
Amid the ongoing public health crisis unfolding across the nation, the city council voted on Tuesday, April 7, to reactivate a disaster relief fund and set aside $500,000 to cover the costs related to locally addressing the coronavirus pandemic.
In a 3-1 vote, with Mayor Pro Tem Laura Ferguson opposed and Councilmember Chris Hamm absent, the council approved the appropriation of $500,000, using coffers from the city’s general fund and general liability fund.
Assistant City Manager Erik Sund explained to the council that the relief fund is intended to be used as a means of tracking the monies being spent toward the crisis, and in turn, identify how much in reimbursements should be recovered from the federal and state governments.
“I think it’s important to note, we have no intention of spending $500,000, but we don’t know how long this emergency is going to go and what impacts the city is going to have,” Sund said. “And from a grant reimbursable standpoint, tracking these costs separately is key is to getting swift reimbursement from those agencies.”
According to the city, since it began implementing strict social distancing measures, such as closing access to public facilities, it has incurred additional expenses, including costs for extra cleaning, expansion of telecommuting and shift changes.
“Many of the costs we’re incurring are above and beyond our normal budgetary amounts,” Sund said, giving the examples that “public works maintenance staff is doing a lot of work related to COVID-19, beyond their normal eight-hour day. So, those overtime costs are being tracked, because those are something the city can seek reimbursement for in light of COVID-19.”
As the crisis continues, with no clear end in sight, Sund added that the appropriation would cover future financial impacts such as the need for additional laptops for telecommunicating.
Believing the action puts the cart before the horse, Ferguson said she’s “never heard of (a city) putting aside half a million dollars in an emergency to draw from.” She also raised concern over why the city couldn’t work within the current budget to charge expenses and code them as COVID-19 response in order to track the funds for recovery.
“You don’t create, what I see this as, a slush fund,” Ferguson said. “A half a million dollars, set aside and not spending the current general fund money, which is what we should be doing. All of our salaries including contracts are already budgeted and accounted for this year, and half the people are telecommuting from home.”
Ferguson then questioned the city’s report, which notes that increased costs are due to telecommuting and sanitizing.
“Those don’t increase costs to the tune of half a million dollars,” she said. “Telecommuting doesn’t increase costs. You’re paying them anyway, whether employees are home or at work.”
In response to Ferguson’s criticism, Sund said that while the city does have appropriations for general fund operating expenses for regular core services in the budget, there was no available funding for the event of a disaster.
“If we try to use the current appropriations, we would have shortages,” Sund said.
To allay any concerns over the relief fund expenditures, a provision was included to have the city staff regularly come back to the council with reports detailing how the monies have been spent.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.