Less than two weeks before a use-it-or-lose-it deadline to spend $554 million in federal pandemic relief funds, details about how the money has been disbursed or allocated in Orange County, California, remain unclear.
The county was given the $554 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds on March 27 and has until Dec. 30 to spend it, or it must return the money to the federal government. The funds were intended to protect the American people “from the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19,” according to the U.S. Department of Treasury.
As of Sept. 30, the county had spent about 42 percent, or $234 million, of the total. Molly Nichelson, a county public information officer, told The Epoch Times that full accounting of how the funds have been spent in each district won’t be available until Jan. 15.
“The intent of the County of Orange is to spend all the CARES Act money. … We don’t intend to leave any money on the table,” Nichelson said.
She gave one example of a use the money has found so far: about $10 million was spent on the Safe Dine OC program, which provided cash grants of up to $5,000 to restaurant owners to help cover extra costs for cleaning supplies, site configuration, employee training and personal protective equipment to meet statewide COVID-19 guidelines.
“We spent all $10 million of our CARES Act funding for the restaurant program, Safe Dine OC—all $10 million out the door,” she said.
District 5 Supervisor Lisa Bartlett told The Epoch Times the county hasn’t spent all the money yet, but that all of it has been allocated.
“We are going to spend every single dollar of the $554 million that we received from the CARES Act. We’re not going to turn any of that back,” Bartlett said.
“It has gone to a number of different programs and initiatives. We’ve put money into food and security, which has been on the increase. Money has gone into helping small businesses with grants.
“We have supported our hospitals with $30 million to help them backfill on PPE and other things relative to COVID. We’ve really spent our money very wisely and put it into a lot of good areas where it makes a lot of sense.”
The county spent more than $62 million on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) alone, she said.
Each supervisor was given $15 million to distribute in his or her district, in total, $75 million.
District 5 Spending
Bartlett spent about $14.5 million on grants to small businesses, she said in a statement emailed to The Epoch Times on Dec. 15.
She highlighted “two very special programs” in her district.
The Small Business Grant Program gave 1,500 businesses and nonprofits $10,000 each. An additional $340,000 went to struggling small businesses in the unincorporated areas of the county, including areas of her district, she said.
A Nutrition Gap Program earmarked $1 million to provide food and prepared meals to seniors, people with disabilities, and veterans regardless of their age.
“I am very pleased that we were able to provide financial support to our businesses and those suffering from food insecurity during this time of great need,” she said.
Countywide, a child care facility grant program provided $10 million to support to 796 childcare establishments, Bartlett said.
Spending in Other Districts
The other supervisors couldn’t be reached for comment as of press deadline regarding how they each spent their $15 million.
However, for District 1, hundreds of recipients of small business grants ($10,000 each) are listed online.
A general countywide breakdown of how the $15 million was allocated for each district was obtained by the Voice of OC through a public records request. It shows $13 million allocated in District 1 for small business grants, about $900,000 going to Santa Ana, $617,000 to Garden Grove, $393,000 to Westminster, and $84,000 to Fountain Valley.
In District 2, about $314,000 was allocated to a nonprofit grant program, and about $40,000 to a small business grant program. The rest is divided among the cities, with Huntington Beach receiving the most, at about $4.7 million. Newport Beach and Costa Mesa each got more than $2 million each.
In District 3, about $434,000 went to a skilled nursing grant program, about $500,000 to an arts grant program, and about $90,000 to small businesses. The rest was divided among the cities, with Irvine getting $5 million and Orange about $3.5 million.
In District 4, a large part—about $11.5 million—went to small businesses. Tens of thousands went to school districts, $143,000 went to Boys & Girls clubs. And the rest went to cities, with Fullerton getting the most, at about $1.1 million.
Controversy and Confusion
Controversy over the CARES Act funding surfaced in late May when 31 of 34 Orange County mayors argued that the $75 million of the funding should be divvied up among the cities according to population size, but the Board of Supervisors rejected that idea.
Instead, Supervisors Andrew Do, Lisa Bartlett, and Doug Chaffee voted 3–2 in favor of a plan to split the $75 million among the five county districts to be allocated at the discretion of each supervisor.
During an Irvine City Council candidates’ debate in October, Councilmember Tammy Kim—then a city finance commissioner—accused then-Mayor Christina Shea and councilmembers of failing to stand up to the County Board of Supervisors “to ensure that the City of Irvine receives our fair share of resources.”
She said Irvine was entitled to $49 million in CARES Act funds. Kim later told The Epoch Times the $49 million figure surfaced at a May 18 city finance commission meeting. “I don’t know how that figure was determined. I believe it was based on the size of the city,” Kim said.
District 3 Supervisor Don Wagner told The Epoch Times that the $49 million figure was based on the city-by-city per capita budget model mayors had called for in May, which was rejected by the board.
The federal government disbursed the funds to states, which then gave the money to counties and cities with more than 500,000 residents. Because Orange County doesn’t have any cities that populous, the entire $554 million was given to the county to disburse, Wagner said.
The Epoch Times reporter Michelle Thompson contributed to this report.