When it comes to future COVID-19 financial assistance, there’s at least one thing many municipal leaders can agree on: Towns and counties need continued support and more freedom in how they spend federal aid.
During a virtual roundtable meeting hosted by U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan on Monday, county and municipal officials throughout New Hampshire sounded off on how they’re faring as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise and what they would like to see in any future aid packages from Washington. Cheshire County Administrator Chris Coates, like others on the call, said he hopes any additional funding offers more discretion at the local level.
“We need flexible funding,” Coates told Hassan, D-N.H. He noted that under the CARES Act, a COVID-19 relief package that President Donald Trump signed into law in late March, communities with more that 500,000 people had more freedom than smaller municipalities in how the money could be spent. Coates said he wants area communities to have the same options as larger ones.
He also said there needs to be more support for the county’s essential services, saying there is a 25 percent staffing shortage at the county-run Maplewood Nursing Home in Westmoreland and a similar shortage at the Cheshire County jail in Keene. Two staff members at the nursing home have tested positive for COVID-19 this month.
Coates said there has been a revenue loss at the nursing home, which has had to keep five to seven beds open to be used as isolation areas in the event of an outbreak. He questioned what would happen if Maplewood saw an outbreak like the one the Coos County Nursing Home in Stewartstown has been battling over the past week.
“What is the support mechanism?” Coates asked.
Another participant in Monday’s roundtable meeting, Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier, also voiced concerns about finances. He said federal assistance should be delivered directly to lower levels of government rather than passed through the state.
He also noted that he has concerns about how state funding shortfalls could affect municipalities. That subject, which has been a focus among congressional Democrats, has been a point of contention in negotiations for a follow-up to the CARES Act.
“Berlin’s resources are stretched thin,” he said, “We receive ... significant state aid to education. If we lose that money, the city of Berlin will be forced to lay off fire people, police officers, all of the very personnel that are desperately needed right now. And I hope people check their egos at the door and put together a package that helps states and communities.”
Hassan said she has been working with U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to extend deadlines for spending CARES Act funds and to push for more flexibility in future packages. On Tuesday, Grassley, 87, tweeted that he’d tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
In addition to recognizing the need for additional funding and fewer restrictions on how that funding is spent, Hassan said she thinks it’s crucial for any new relief packages to include money for public health resources.
“That includes more testing, especially rapid testing and more personal protective equipment,” she said. “That’s really necessary to protect the health and well-being of all Granite Staters and all Americans, and it’s also absolutely essential to getting our economy back up and open and our kids back to school.”