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PPE vs. Pizza: How Connecticut Towns Are Footing The Bill For COVID

A driver parks a school bus at the First Student bus depot in New Haven, Connecticut.
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
A driver parks a school bus at the First Student bus depot in New Haven, Connecticut.

When COVID-19 first cut through Connecticut in the spring, municipalities faced a litany of unanticipated expenses. Buildings needed to be sanitized, masks and gloves bought and town halls rearranged to accommodate remote workers.

To help, the state reimbursed local towns and cities more than $14.5 million in federal funds for coronavirus expenses in the first half of 2020. But state leaders also denied or deemed ineligible about 10% of all requests. 

New state data shine light on some of those denials, detailing local efforts to recoup money on everything from small-ticket items like pizza and virtual yoga to big-ticket expenses like unused fuel for school buses sidelined by the pandemic. And the data also show just how much local and state officials were struggling to keep up with the unfolding, evolving bureaucracy around the virus itself.

In Wethersfield, town officials filed for about $60,000 in reimbursements. Nearly all were approved, but the state flagged a $140 bill for pizza. 

Wethersfield Town Manager Gary Evans wrote in an email that the pizza was for an emergency meeting to plan Wethersfield’s COVID response in an “unprecedented time.” But that didn’t fly. Neither did a $30 bill for virtual yoga offered to senior citizens after the town’s community center closed. The state rejected both.

In Hamden, the state approved $34,000 for cleaning supplies and office modifications. But it tossed a $470 reimbursement for food provided to police and firefighters “to express gratitude for the intense work they were doing,” wrote Hamden Mayor Curt Leng in an email. 

And while the state approved about $230,000 in reimbursements for office modifications, disinfecting and personal protective equipment in Wallingford, it rejected roughly $20,000 in unemployment-related expenses.

“Frankly, I knew this was kind of a long shot, but I said, you know what? Let’s see what happens,” said James Bowes, Wallingford’s comptroller, who said he missed a training webinar that cited such an expense as ineligible for reimbursement.

“These expenses were paid out of our old year budget,” Bowes said. “But it would have been nice to boost up … the rainy day fund.”

Making decisions about which expenses were allowed and which were not fell to the state’s Office of Policy and Management (OPM), which is coordinating the disbursement of $75 million allocated through the federal CARES Act and reimbursed through the Municipal CRF Program.

From March through June 30, 2020, OPM reimbursed $14.5 million to towns and cities for their COVID-related costs. But it also rejected nearly $1.6 million in claims. 

Among them was around $250,000 in expenses related to unemployment for the city of Waterbury. 

Those expenses were denied. City officials in the mayor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment asking why the claims were originally filed.

‘A Very Painstaking Process’

The state Capitol in Hartford in January 2021.
Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
The state Capitol in Hartford in January 2021.

In April, the federal CARES Act allocated about $1.4 billion in federal aid to Connecticut for coronavirus relief. From that, Gov. Ned Lamont set aside $75 million to reimburse cities and towns for their COVID-related costs through the Municipal CRF Program. 

“Where we experienced some challenges would be in the structure of the program,” said Melissa McCaw, OPM secretary. “The first step for municipalities was to seek reimbursement through FEMA for any eligible expenses. That has been a very painstaking process.”

McCaw said FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was “very slow” at telling towns what costs it would cover. That left many towns in limbo waiting to hear back from federal officials before submitting their requests to the state. 

Additionally, said Simsbury Town Manager Maria Capriola, guidance on what was eligible for reimbursement was constantly in flux. 

“We were often advised to ‘submit everything’ we had been tracking, understanding that some items may ultimately be approved while others may be denied,” Capriola wrote in an email.

State officials ultimately approved about $26,000 in aid for Simsbury but denied a $5,000 reimbursement request for gift cards purchased at a local toy store. 

“The toy store gift cards were part of special Easter care packages for our families with children that are served by our Social Services Department,” Capriola said. “The toy store gift cards also helped to support a long-standing family owned business in town during the early stage of the pandemic.”

In Deep River, state officials ultimately approved about $9,700 in expenses to disinfect town buildings, build hand-washing stations and get drop boxes for tax collection. But a roughly $11,000 reimbursement request for new door locks at a sewer treatment plant apparently went too far. 

“It may be pushing the envelope a little bit, but it is work that was done as a direct result of the pandemic,” said Angus McDonald, Deep River’s first selectman. “Too many people were able to walk into the building ... it was an effort to make the building safer.” 

McDonald said his town initially submitted its COVID reimbursement request to FEMA but then withdrew that request and sent it to OPM after FEMA “hardened” up its guidance. 

“This was not anything that we were trying to slip through,” McDonald said. “This is exactly what we were told to do.” 

Once state officials denied the request, both McDonald and Capriola said the rejected costs were absorbed locally.  

‘The State Should Have Reimbursed Us’

SMG Corporate Services day porter Juan Valenzuela cleans a phone in the Senate chambers at the Connecticut state Capitol in March 2020.
Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
SMG Corporate Services day porter Juan Valenzuela cleans a phone in the Senate chambers at the Connecticut state Capitol in March 2020.

Figuring out what expenses were eligible left some town officials scratching their heads, waiting weeks to hear back from federal officials and, ultimately, digging much deeper into their pocketbooks. 

In New Haven, city officials found themselves on the hook for roughly $750,000 in fuel costs. Mayor Justin Elicker said the city pre-purchases fuel to lock in prices, but when COVID-19 hit and students shifted to remote learning, gas bought for city-run school buses no longer had a use. 

“We had to sell some of the excess fuel that we purchased during that time period at a loss,” Elicker said. “That loss was around $750,000.”

“This is a cost that is COVID-related,” Elicker said. “We feel pretty strongly the state should have reimbursed us for that cost.”

But state officials denied the request, saying fuel costs were budgeted prior to the pandemic, and thus, were not eligible for reimbursement. 

Elicker said the city will absorb the $750,000 loss. 

OPM’s McCaw said “we’ve all been managing COVID a bit on the fly” and acknowledged the confusion many municipalities faced about what qualified as a valid COVID-related expense.

In response, the state announced in December that COVID-related costs incurred from July 1 to the end of 2020 will now be paid via a direct allocation of $45.5 million to cities and towns through the Municipal CRF Program. The definition of a qualified expense has also been broadened.

“It will be based on population, density and … a measure of ability to pay,” McCaw said. “We’re going to make this more nimble and ensure that the funds we promised to municipalities would be released.”

In New Haven, that means an infusion of about $3.1 million. But since that $750,000 cost for the school bus fuel was incurred during the first half of the year, it still won’t be eligible for reimbursement. 

“Overall, the federal funding that’s passed through the state has helped us out a lot,” Elicker said. “My concern is that the long-term impacts, economically, are going to be borne disproportionately by large municipalities.”

And with the reimbursement program now scrapped, it will fall to towns to maintain records that show those upfront payments are used only for qualified COVID expenses should auditors come knocking.

Copyright 2021 Connecticut Public

Patrick Skahill is a reporter at WNPR. He covers science and the environment. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of WNPR's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.