Clarity needed on government virus funds

It’s hard to deny the truth in the old adage that, sometimes, you have to spend money to make money.

But no one — least of all governments using taxpayer dollars — should have to spend money to spend money.

Yet Alpena County and many other local governments across the nation find themselves in exactly that situation as they try to figure out how to spend millions of dollars in recent federal COVID-19 relief funds without running afoul of the rules.

The money — about $5 million to Alpena County — came from the American Rescue Plan signed in March by President Joe Biden. It also came with lots of strings attached: Governments may not use it to pay down debt or fill up retirement funds, for example, though many government leaders would argue that could have the biggest, longest-term impact on their finances by freeing up more day-to-day money for ongoing services to the public. Governments may use the money to recoup revenue lost during or because of the coronavirus pandemic, but have to navigate a complex formula to prove the link between the lost revenue and the pandemic.

To navigate those strings, Alpena County officials, like other government leaders, have considered hiring a consultant to help them navigate the red tape.

No local government, many of whom already operate on tight budgets, should have to make a decision like that.

We understand and appreciate Congress’s and the Biden administration’s desire to make sure governments spend the money in ways that help them successfully climb out of the hole COVID-19 dug for them, but the onus should fall on the massive federal government — not tiny-by-comparison local governments — to clearly spell out the rules.

Numerous officials, including local government associations, say more clarity is on the way, and we hope that’s true.


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