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Maggie Lee

Georgia communities hoping for more federal COVID-19 relief funding

A map of Georgia on a Downtown building, with Atlanta City Hall in background. File/Credit: Maggie Lee A map of Georgia on a Downtown building, with Atlanta City Hall in background. File/Credit: Maggie Lee

By Maggie Lee

The federal government sent Georgia some $4.1 billion for COVD-19 relief under legislation from March this year. But some of the relief that Georgians see depends on where they live. And local governments foresee much more need ahead.

The city of Atlanta received about $88 million via the CARES Act, the federal government’s marquee COVID-19 relief fund. Atlanta is spending some $22 million on rent, mortgage and utility assistance to stop evictions.

When a website was opened up for city residents to apply for that rent, mortgage and utility help in August, about 10,000 people applied in about two months. And more than half had to be turned away from that fund because they were calling from outside the fairly small city limits of Atlanta.

All those folks who were turned away might or might not live in a place that’s using CARES money to stop evictions. But the chances are best for people who live in metro Atlanta.

Only those most populous places in Georgia received a piece of that $4.1 billion CARES money directly from the federal government — about $612 million is being shared among Atlanta, the rest of Fulton separately, Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties.  Each of those counties, or some of their cites, are spending some CARES money on stopping evictions.

Outside those four counties, the story is different. Less-populated places didn’t get a CARES check straight from the federal government. Instead, the state of Georgia got the rest of the CARES Act money, about $3.5 billion.

The state has granted $371 million to smaller counties and cities, which amounts to about $53 per resident that local governments can decide to spend as they like. The big metro jurisdictions that got money direct from the feds are able to spend more like $175 per person.

Those smaller communities had to come up with plans relatively fast and mainly spent the money on public safety and public health payroll, according to running reports published by the state.

“The 30-day time frame for use of the funds made it a challenge for local governments to set up and administer grant programs,” said Larry Hanson, executive director of the Georgia Municipal Association, a group for the state’s cities.

Savannah’s Democratic mayor, Van Johnson, has said he expected much more than the $7.6 million the state sent in CARES money. Johnson has been publicly ill with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and has said that Savannah small businesses and residents need more relief.

A June letter from Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to cities and counties suggested more than one round of funding might come to local governments, but isn’t conclusive. (SaportaReport has reached out to the governor’s office about CARES spending plans; we’ll update this space if any information arrives.)

The biggest single spend that Kemp has announced so far is $1.5 billion for the state’s unemployment trust fund.

That fund got exhausted a few months into in the COVID-19 recession. An August plan had Georgia taking low-interest loans from the Treasury, as other states are doing, to be able to keep issuing unemployment checks.

But now the idea is to reduce or eliminate any state borrowing for the unemployment trust fund.

In press releases announcing the allocation, Kemp and business leaders emphasized cost-savings for businesses, which are the ones that pay into the unemployment trust fund.

Kemp’s office has also announced CARES spending on nursing homes, state public safety agencies and more. It’s also publishing a running tally of CARES spending, much of which so far includes public safety payroll and personal protective equipment.

Georgia’s counties want to do more for people in need, said Clint Mueller, legislative director at ACCG, a group for the state’s counties. But without more help from Congress, he said, local governments don’t have enough money. The temporarily generous unemployment benefits that came with the CARES Act are ending, he pointed out.

“We think the greatest need is yet to come,” Mueller said. “The feeling is that it’s about to get worse.”

Meanwhile, back in Atlanta, the city has known for months that $22 million on eviction-prevention is not near enough to avoid thousands of people becoming homeless.

About $5.2 million in CARES money had already been disbursed or was in the pipeline to folks as of October 23, said Kristen McCollum, CFO of the United Way of Metro Atlanta, in an update to City Council last month. The nonprofit is administering the Atlanta-only hotline and web portal that got so many calls from non-Atlantans seeking help.

The good news is that United Way works all over the state and can and does link people inside or outside Atlanta with different resources. It and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta have already dispersed some $18.4 million in private philanthropy across greater Atlanta from their COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund.

Call 211 from anywhere, any time, or go to 211 online, to be connected with United Way, which links people to resources like food pantries, job search and placement agencies, and financial emergency assistance agencies.

The bad news was that the CARES money has been slow to move out the door, in part because the pandemic kept United Way working via phones and computers at first, whereas many of its clients are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

“We still have the online application but we have found that going on site to apartment complexes, where these folks live, is the best route to take,” McCollum said.

United Way is working with its partner agencies to do in-person outreach at apartments; and United Way itself is open for in-person consultations at Downtown’s Loudermilk Center at 40 Courtland Street, NE at this schedule.

But across the metro, aid funds won’t be open forever, and state local governments can’t print money. It remains to be seen if Congress will send more aid.

Documents:

Call 211 from anywhere to be connected with United Way, which links people to resources like food pantries, job search and placement agencies, and financial emergency assistance agencies.

Or check them out online:

United Way of Greater Atlanta

City of Atlanta residents’ fund

List of all United Ways in Georgia

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Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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