Taxpayers Question Local COVID Relief Spending Across Nation

Brett Rowland (The Center Square).

In southeast Michigan, a county government is moving ahead with plans for a new sports complex that will be funded by federal COVID-19 relief money. The project could run to as high as $80 million. Residents are resisting.

In order to bring snow to Buckskin Hills Ski Hill and Snow Tubing Hill, Utah’s rural county used $321,000 of federal COVID-19 money. An auditor’s report later flagged some of the spending.

Shelby County Schools, Tennessee, spent $25 million to purchase air purifiers from Global Plasma Solutions. But, the lawsuit says that purifiers ineffective.

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These are just some of the many examples that show how local governments used billions of federal tax dollars provided by Congress in order to reduce the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Adam Andrzejewski, founder and CEO of government watchdog, said the amount of federal money has municipalities struggling to spend it.

“When Congress throws so much money at the cities that they don’t even know how to spend it, we have a problem,” Andrzejewski told The Center Square. 

In the aftermath of the pandemic, many local governments are able to spend federal tax dollars on a variety of projects. Some of these could be costly for taxpayers over the years while others may pose a threat to community priorities. 

Lenawee County in southeast Michigan is moving forward with plans to build a sports complex that could cost up to $80 million. Local leaders have named the project Project Phoenix. They hope it will bring in more out-of-town sports teams, and increase the economy’s potential for money and employment. But a consultant’s report lists a number of challenges for the Lenawee County project, including the possibility that the facility will operate at a financial loss each year if it doesn’t secure enough commercial tenants.

The report also noted the proposed facility could face “strong competition” from existing sports facilities in the region and benefits could be capped by the limited number of hotels in the area. The report further noted that “several peer facilities operate at a deficit” and “facilities of this type are often built for the economic impacts they can generate to the surrounding area.”

Crossroads Consulting reports that Lenawee County officials believe the facility will provide 200 new jobs and $15.2 million of economic activity. Crossroads Consulting noted the report “does not account for potential short- or long-term implications resulting from COVID-19.” The pandemic has hit the travel and tourism industries especially hard. 

Kevon Martis (the Deerfield Township zoning administrator) raised concerns regarding the proposed project. He spoke as a County resident about it.

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“My No. 1 concern was how did this make it to the top of the county’s priority list?” he said. “It’s not in the middle of the county and the cost is twice the annual budget for the county government.”

Lenawee County Administrator Martin Marshall didn’t respond to multiple requests from The Center Square to discuss the project. Deputy Administrator Kim Murphy also didn’t respond to a request for an interview. Lenawee County Board Chairman David Stimpson also did not respond to a request for comment.

In the effort to meet the federal spending deadlines, funding was also provided for other projects in the nation.

Uintah County, in Utah, spent $321,000 in federal COVID-19 relief money to get snow to the Buckskin Hills Ski and Snow Tubing Hill. An auditor’s report later flagged some of the spending. The report found the county bought six snow guns and associated parts for the Buckskin Hills Ski & Snow Tubing Hill, totaling $146,862, including $3,000 in shipping costs.

Each individual snow gun cost $19,999, just below the county’s $20,000 threshold for a sealed bidding process. To keep costs down, although all five snow guns were bought at the same time, the county separated the invoice.

“The County circumvented established purchasing policy by splitting an invoice, ignoring open bid requirements, awarding contracts outside public meetings, and later retroactively modifying its purchasing policy,” according to the independent Audit. “At the time, the County purchasing policy required that purchases exceeding $20,000 go through a sealed bidding process and be awarded in a public meeting.” 

In Tennessee, Shelby County Schools spent $25 million on air purifiers from Global Plasma Solutions. A Lawsuit has been filed over the effectiveness of the purifiers, but Shelby County spent $1 million on installation even after the Maryland and Delaware lawsuits.

In some instances, criminal prosecutions have resulted from questions concerning local COVID-19 spend.

U.S. Prosecutors charged Michael DiMassa (aged 30) from West Haven, Connecticut with defrauding West Haven of over $600,000. Prosecutors said DiMassa, a city employee and state lawmaker at the time, created a company called Compass Investment Group that fraudulently billed the city of West Haven and its “COVID-19 Grant Department” for consulting services purportedly that were not performed.

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Prosecutors claim that DiMassa took cash out of the Compass Investment Group LLC account. Some of the withdrawals took place shortly before or immediately after DiMassa was caught buying chips from Mohegan sun Casino.

Other people have made taxpayers and government officials scratch their heads.

In Flint, Michigan, Flint Public School officials authorized a $22,500 COVID-19 bonus for staff members using federal money intended “to safely reopen” schools just before the district in January shifted to online learning indefinitely citing COVID-19 concerns. The move put more than 3,500 students back into virtual learning, despite poor past results from remote learning and at least $99 million of federal money the U.S. Department of Education expressly designated “to reopen K-12 schools safely.”

Pamela Hornberger (Michigan state representative and Chair of the House Education Committee), called for Flint schools to provide in-person schools. Hornberger noted that both public and private schools in close proximity are available in person.

“If you got a $20,000 bonus, why wouldn’t you return to the classroom?” Hornberger .

Flint Schools remained Closing for about three weeks before reopening on Monday.

“While people of good will can debate how the money was spent, but the fact is that all of it was borrowed against our national debt – which is now $30 trillion and growing,” Andrzejewski said.

This article was Syndicated by permission of The Center Square.