The Buck Stops Here? Or Never Got Going in Montgomery County?

Millions in grant and relief funding to help residents and businesses in need have yet to be distributed by the county.

Montgomery County received $183,336,953 under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to help county residents and businesses survive the pandemic. Funds must be used by Dec. 31, 2020. But on Tuesday, Oct. 13, executive staff highlighted specific programs and funds that have not been spent, months into the pandemic.

For example, the county has not disbursed only half of a $10 million federal grant to address food insecurity. The county has sent out checks totaling just $607,508 from a $20 million federal grant for rental assistance and eviction/homelessness prevention, and appears to have spent zero dollars of the $355,000 for housing for veterans and unsheltered adults.

“I’m afraid the game is going to be over before you even come up with your game plan,” said Councilmember Andrew Friedson (D-1), who represents Potomac.

The Council authorized 31 different appropriations since the beginning of the pandemic. Some have been distributed such as $5,996,576 of $6 million in General Fund Reserves for Emergency Assistance Relief Payment Program and Food Security.

“The idea that our residents and businesses are struggling more than they ever have and are more vulnerable than they’ve ever been, when the needs are as challenging as they currently are, with an economic crisis and a public health emergency, that our issue is not that we are going to run out of money too quickly but the clock will run out before these programs will be able to help these residents and businesses … I can’t tell you how frustrating that is,” said Friedson.

Here are examples of resolutions with monies that haven’t been distributed at all: nothing of a $3 million for businesses assistance for medical and dental clinics; nothing from a $40,000 grant for unemployment insurance outreach; nothing from a $2.025 million to give assistance to distressed, affordable common ownership communities; and nothing from a $5 million from an Emergency Assistance Relief Payment Program.

“I am shocked by what we are hearing,” said Nancy Navarro (D-4). “There are people right now here in Montgomery County suffering greatly because they have no idea where they are going to be living.”

“I think what you are hearing today, which I share deeply, is just an urgent need and a frustration. as people elected to represent people in this county and deeply deeply caring about people in this county and wanting them to get the assistance,” said at-large council member Will Jawando. “And then thinking we were getting them the assistance in a timely fashion. And then to find out. … and have explained more today in depth that we’re not doing what we thought we were doing.”

“When the reality of the pandemic came into full view, we responded at lightning speed to fund the programs that we knew were going to keep our residents healthy, keep them safe and keep them open for business as best we could,” said at-large council member Evan Glass. “We have to do better because our residents need it.

“It is disappointing, it is disheartening, it is frustrating, it is all of those things. You’ve heard that,” said Craig Rice (D-2).

“THE BOTTOM LINE is we appropriated money responding to the needs and the feedback of our residents and the money has not gone out to help in the middle of a global pandemic and in the middle of an emergency. There’s just no excuse for that,” said Navarro.

Executive staff explained the complexity and difficulty of dealing with FEMA and other parts of the federal bureaucracy.

Tom Hucker (D-5) asked where is the county executive?

“I’m a little flabbergasted by this whole report. Do you know where the County Executive is? I would have expected the County Executive to be coming in and making this presentation. This is not one, this is like five or six of the most important issues facing the county,” said Hucker. “It’s hard enough to say to our constituents that we don't have money to keep your business open or we don't have money to keep you in your apartment but it’s heartbreaking to tell them we have the money, we have it and it’s in a bank account, we just haven't given it to you yet.”

When executive staff tried to take responsibility, Hucker voiced frustration.

“It clearly rises to that level. You shouldn’t have to go back and communicate our frustration to him. The buck stops with him. He ought to be here to say here’s what’s happening, ... so we’re attacking this as a team.

“This is food and shelter and so many problems right in front of our constituents every day; I can’t think of anything more important than what we are talking about right now,” said Hucker.

“It should have been a conversation,” said Rice. “I don’t move mountains, but I know people who can. Again, there needs to be a closer connection in communication between the Council and the Executive so we can work together so we can meet these priorities that we all care about. The missteps that were made not solving this earlier is putting our community and our constituents who are most at risk in jeopardy. And that’s not okay.”

THE NEXT DAY, Montgomery County issued a release, saying “surveys indicate an estimated 20,000 households, or 15 percent of the 130,000 rental households in the County, are behind on their rent and at risk of eviction due to the COVID-19 pandemic. County Executive Marc Elrich encourages all concerned renters to act now to take advantage of available financial, legal and counseling resources to help avoid eviction actions.”

‘We are offering a coordinated package of supports to help renters take action to stay in their home,’ said Elrich. ‘I urge all affected renters to apply now for rent payment assistance; contact Maryland Legal Aid if you receive a court notice; and, access free services to learn your options, get answers to your questions and help you take steps to avoid eviction.’

“Rent support ($20 million available): Renters are urged to Apply Now! for the COVID-19 Rent Relief Program – Phase 2. Renters also can call 311 (240-777-0311) to apply for rent payment assistance. Approved households may receive up to $4,000 toward rent. The program continues to accept applicants and anticipates serving 5,000 households by Dec. 30. Assistance is based on availability of funds,” according to the release.

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