Playground, cameras, new pick-up truck: How local communities spent federal money for COVID-19 relief

27 Investigates

Ohio Auditor of State Keith Faber said his office gave guidance to communities about the spending, but he has seen some interesting requests

(WKBN) – A playground, surveillance equipment and new vehicles — those were just a few of the purchases made by local communities with federal funding they received through the CARES Act.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security money was distributed by the U.S. Department of Treasury to communities across the U.S. for expenditures that popped up during the public health crisis.

“It was largely based on per capita allocation. There were some other factors like poverty, school districts… but the real limiting factor was what the money was used for,” said Ohio Auditor of State Keith Faber.

WKBN 27 First News began requesting documents from local communities at the beginning of February and received them through March of this year for last year’s round of CARES Act funding.

While most of the money given to communities covered the purchases of items like personal protective equipment and sanitizing spray, some communities were creative with their use of funds.

The purchase of surveillance cameras at Brookfield Park, for example, led to disagreement among trustees about whether the funds were being properly used.

Trustee Ron Haun touted the purchase for the purposes of contact tracing. He said the cameras would provide another tool to the health department to help track down infection, as the park is used by multiple people and sports teams.

“If somebody gets the virus, and we have a breakout because of some events happening at our park, we’ll be able to go back and review that to inform others in case they were in contact with it and help inform our health department,” Haun said.

Trustee Dan Suttles, however, was against the purchase and questioned the legality of adding lights to the camera poles as well as using other funds for the lighting.

In the end, the cameras were installed. During their March meeting, the lighting purchase was reexamined and eventually passed with the other trustees’ approval.

Brookfield wasn’t the only community to spend the funds this way. West Farmington also noted in its purchase orders that $5,000 was spent at Hudson Communications for cameras for park surveillance of social distancing. Newton Township also spent over $8,000 on security cameras in the administration building for the purpose of assisting in contact tracing.

Kris Wilster, of the Trumbull County Health Department, said on March 31 that the health department had received no calls regarding contact tracing from any local communities. He said there hadn’t been many complaints, in general, regarding COVID-19 exposure and contact-tracing efforts.

He said if contact tracing was needed, the cameras may be helpful but that a need hadn’t come up.

Green Township also gave $8,500 to the South Range school district toward the purchase of cameras, though those cameras were used to detect masks and read temperatures. The cameras projected to a flat-screen television, which would be observed by a nurse as the students arrived, according to Fiscal Officer Randy Chismar.

Faber said he held over 40 video conferences with more than 500 elected officials in Ohio, talking about what they could and couldn’t do with CARES Act funds.

“We were very open,” Faber said. “Ask us if you think this could be a COVID or CARES Act-related expenditure and we’ll give you our best guidance. We really hope people did that to try and avoid problems later on.”

Still, he’s seen some interesting spending requests among some communities in the state.

“We had one township that asked us if they could rehab all of their parks with CARES Act money. When you push it to the logical extreme, you can make an argument that people were going to spend more time outside so you probably need to build new shelter houses and that kind of stuff with it, but that’s pretty far of an extension. I asked the question to township officials ‘Under that logic, are you going to repave all of your roads because people need to drive from their house to the park?’” Faber said.

His office recently started the auditing process and anticipates finding communities that pushed the envelope too far.

When it comes to spending on security cameras, Faber said he can see both sides of the argument. He said it was generally OK for local governments to spend their funds on public safety.

“But that doesn’t mean go out and replace all of your cruisers and or all your fire trucks necessarily. You had to be relatively judicial,” Faber said.

Some communities did purchase new vehicles with their CARES funding, many citing a need among first responders who deal with the pandemic daily.

Hanover, Vienna and Warren townships spent money on vehicles for first responders. Southington spent just over $40,000 for a pick-up truck to keep employees socially distanced. West Township spent $39,500 on a dump truck and noted a $500 downpayment on a truck in their CARES documents.

Braceville Township spent over $127,000 on vehicles to “separate employees.”

Mesopotamia purchased a new plow truck to “eliminate the sharing of vehicles” and to “promote social distancing.” The township reasoned that this would cut down on operational downtime due to sanitizing the vehicles or an employee’s sickness.

Weathersfield Township spent $333,917 on a rescue truck, pick-up truck and dump truck, according to the itemized list that was provided to WKBN. And Newton Township spent $48,585 for a 2020 Ford F550 outfitted with over $39,000 in accessories, including a dump body and plow, for the road department “to allow social distancing for employee work required COVID-19 protection.”

Warren Township also spent $5,880 on two Tasers for the police department, citing an increase in call volume during the pandemic and a need to eliminate the sharing of the devices.

Also among some of the more uncommon purchases, Leetonia spent over $46,000 on a playground, as well as $4,464 on outdoor tables for the park.

Leetonia Mayor Kevin Siembida said they focused on purchasing items that could be used by village residents for years to come.

“We didn’t need thousands of dollars in Clorox wipes,” he said, adding, “We wanted something that could be used long-term.”

Siembida said the old playground was an aging wooden one, and the new one will be easier to sanitize, as it is stainless steel. The purchase of the playground and outdoor tables was to get people out of the house during the lockdown in a socially-distanced way, he said.

Siembida said he wasn’t concerned that the purchases were inappropriate as he didn’t get any pushback from the state.

Gustavus Township also invested in its park, spending $2,274 on six new poly benches engraved with the township’s name and six new picnic tables, costing $2,214.

The village of Leetonia also purchased a digital sign for $48,280 in order to get messages, especially those about COVID-19, out in a more effective manner.

Boardman Township also spent money on messaging. Administrator Jason Loree explained a $15,000 invoice that was sent from “All Traffic Solutions” for a “radar message sign” and related purchases as being used for vaccination-related messaging.

“The speed trailers also act as mobile messaging. As it can just be used in that capacity, we purchased two of them. It has electronic signage similar to what the county sheriff uses. We are going to be working with the mall and using them when the old Dillard’s building becomes a vaccination site to direct people [where] to go,” he explained via email in February.

Vienna Township spent $2,000 on a gazebo roof. According to Fiscal Officer Linda McCullough, this purchase was for social-distancing purposes. The churches were permitted to use it for outside services, and it was leaking. 

McCullough said, as with all of the township’s purchases, the township received the opinion of their attorney before making any CARES-related purchase as to whether it was an acceptable use of funds.

Elkrun Township spent $4,377 to remove old carpeting. Purchases were also made to upgrade a furnace and install new flooring, though those hadn’t been billed yet at the time of WKBN’s request.

Fiscal Officer Tracey Wonner said the upgrades were made to the township’s meeting area, and they were for “air freshening purposes” for better air quality in the public meeting area.

One thing that appeared to be common in the invoices is a need to shift toward a virtual work environment, with many communities purchasing items like laptops and iPads for their employees. 

Mahoning County spent over $628,000 on improving telework capabilities for public employees. That included the purchases of laptops, video conferencing systems and technology expansion and access. 

Trumbull County also made the purchase of several laptops and iPads, as well as video-conferencing software.

Trumbull County Commissioner Frank Fuda said a primary focus for their CARES Act funds, however, was to help local businesses and food banks.

“I think we had five food banks that we gave $100,000 to,” Fuda said. “We were fortunate to receive that money… Small businesses, they’ve really been affected by this virus and what we were able to do for them is phenomenal.”

Mahoning County Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti said the county spent its funds to help local businesses and people in the Valley who need it.

“It’s unbelievable what this Valley has experienced through this pandemic,” Rimedio-Righetti said.

She commended state officials as the next round of funding is in the early planning period for distribution.

“This is a start and hopefully this little bit their giving everyone will help the economy… and get somewhat back to normal,” she said.

Faber said he was glad to see many counties in the state spend their funds this way.

“I am impressed by how many local governments across Ohio chose to not just take the money for government operations, but rather to put that money back into the citizens and try to get the money where it was needed,” Faber said.

There were other qualifications for CARES Act funds as well. The money couldn’t have been budgeted in March when the pandemic was approaching.

“Otherwise, it wouldn’t be COVID-related if you’re just supplementing what you already budgeted,” Faber said.

Also, the money originally had to be completely expended by the end of 2020. The deadline has since been extended until December 2021, but it was too late for some communities.

“For a lot of local governments that rushed to get their money spent because we weren’t sure what was going to happen, that knowledge would have been much better earlier,” Faber said.

For other communities, the callback dates were pushing up against the federal extension, meaning they had to return some of their funds.

Craig Beach received a total of $47,356 but had to return $25,000 from that funding to the county due to not using it by the December deadline. West Township also returned $3,821 in unused funds, and Unity Township returned almost $46,688.

Faber explained that unused money was essentially clawed back to the counties and then back to the state. He’s waiting on some guidance from the federal government on what will happen to that unused funding, but he expects some equalization to happen during the next round of funds.

“What we’re really encouraging local governments to do is two things: where you can, get the money back to your citizens, your taxpayers in your community. Don’t just find new ways to spend government money,” he said.

Faber said that does appear to be happening locally, as most local governments appear to be fiscally-responsible with their spending.

“The second thing we’re cautioning people not to do is don’t let your CARES Act one-time funds get mixed into your operation budget, because once that happens, you start getting into a structural imbalance to where the new revenues when the new CARES Act or the one-time monies go away, you don’t have the money to pay for your ongoing stable operation,” he added.

There is a process for making sure the funding is spent appropriately, but Faber acknowledged that there are challenges.

“There is so much money coming into this, we know that there is going to be enhanced difficulty in our ability to track all of those monies. We’re seeing it in the unemployment comp system, which is just absolutely ripe with fraudulent claims,” he said.

He recommended that if people have concerns or questions, that they go to ohioauditor.gov to file a complaint or inquiry.

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