As of Sept. 30, Prince William County had spent just $36 million of the $82 million it received in federal relief funds to help local government, schools, businesses and residents weather the impact of the coronavirus pandemic -- and time is running out to dole out rest.
The county received two $41 million installments of federal CARES Act relief, one in March and the other in September. The supervisors were tasked with allocating the funds to help those impacted by the pandemic.
Programs initiated by the board included $8 million for emergency housing assistance to pay up to six months of rent, mortgage or utility payments for qualifying residents; $5 million in micro-grants for area small businesses and $5 million for coronavirus testing. The board also allocated $25 million to Prince William County Schools to improve distance learning for teachers, students and staff.
But the county has so far struggled to actually spend the money allocated to some of the programs and must spend the rest of it by Dec. 30 or return any leftover cash to the state.
Of $8 million in housing help, only $1.5 million spent
The emergency housing assistance program has so far only spent $1.5 million of the $8 million it was provided. The program has received over 2,100 applications for assistance but awarded funds to just 148 applicants as of Oct. 6, according to the county’s Housing and Community Development Director Billy Lake.
Lake told county supervisors at a recent work session that that many requests for housing help were not fulfilled because applicants made technical errors or did not meet the county’s qualifications for aid.
“We have 473 people that made an application, but they never hit the submit button to apply,” Lake said.
Lake said 792 people were denied assistance because they couldn’t prove they suffered a reduction of income as a result of the pandemic or had not provided verification that they had lost a job or wages. Lake said that the program had also had to deal with several cases of possible fraud.
Deputy County Executive Elijah Johnson said the housing office is working the county’s communications office to target individuals and neighborhoods who may need and qualify for housing help.
“We haven’t been able to spend the money we thought we were going to spend,” Johnson said.
Supervisor Margaret Angela Franklin, D-Woodbridge, pushed for emergency housing assistance to be included in the county’s CARES Act spending in April. Franklin questioned the county’s housing staff during the work session about why more funds had not been spent.
“I would think that the need is a lot greater than we’ve been able to serve,” Franklin said.
The county has also only spent about $1 million out of the $5 million allocated for free COVID-19 testing as the demand for testing has fallen off in recent months. Fewer people are showing up for free tests even as the county is offering them six days a week.
The county’s small business assistance program, on the other hand, has spent about $3.8 million of the $5 million allocated by the board. The program provides micro-grants of up to $10,000 to small businesses impacted by the pandemic.
County Finance Director Michelle Attreed said the county has not yet spent all the funds because some expenditures required agreements with third parties or required applications to be received and reviewed.
But Attreed added that, between Sept. 30 and Oct. 15, “significantly more” has been expended and encumbered. “I suspect it may be closer to $50 [million] now,” Attreed said.
Gage Harter, a spokesman for the Virginia Association of Counties, said many Virginia localities are in the same boat and are looking to Congress to provide more time to spend the money.
“It is our understanding that most localities have established a plan for use of the funds, even if those funds may not have been expended yet,” Harter said.
On Tuesday, Oct. 20, Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chair Ann Wheeler asked her fellow board members to sign a letter to Virginia’s congressional delegation seeking an extension to the Dec. 30 CARES Act spending deadline.
In an earlier email, Wheeler said the county has “been very thoughtful and deliberate” when dispersing CARES Act money, “making sure much of it goes to help the residents and businesses, along with the school system, which were all negatively impacted by the pandemic.”
Reach Daniel Berti at firstname.lastname@example.org