Sacramento County received $181 million in federal coronavirus aid but spent most of the funds on the sheriff’s office payroll and benefits, only approving $24 million for public health in recent weeks.
It’s taken over three months for the county to greenlight this federal funding for public health during the global pandemic, as Sacramento has seen a surge in coronavirus cases.
Meanwhile, the sheriff’s office does not have to worry too much about cost-saving cuts down the line, since it secured $104 million from the federal coronavirus fund early on.
Who’s to blame for the delay? Finger-pointing abounds. County officials say the public health office has secured funding from other sources, such as grants. But experts say taking that long to allocate federal coronavirus funds for public health has wasted critical time.
“You have a situation where speed, accuracy [and] getting on top of the problem as quickly as possible is essential to saving people from getting very sick or saving their lives,” said Bruce Pomer, director of government affairs for the California Association of Public Health Laboratory Directors.
Public Health Needs Resources, Cash
County officials seem to agree that the public health office is strapped for staffing and resources — but it’s unclear why it’s taken so long for the department to get federal coronavirus money.
“We do not have everything that we need right now,” said county public health officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye at a board of supervisors hearing Tuesday. “It’s personnel, it’s resources, it’s [money] for overtime, we also need some supplies in the lab.”
She claimed she tried to submit a budget request for $45 million to the county committee overseeing the federal aid, but it wasn’t accepted. Her comments contrasted the claims of her boss, health services director Dr. Peter Beilenson, who in the same hearing downplayed the department’s needs.
The next day, Kasirye backtracked her comments, according to an internal email obtained by CapRadio. In the correspondence with county officials, which carried the subject line “clarification on Budget,” she wrote her department’s request for federal aid was actually never submitted to the committee. She said her office had so far asked for $1.5 million from the fund, and would submit the $45 million request in the coming days.
Kasirye declined an interview request through a county spokesperson and did not respond to a direct email from CapRadio.
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Beilenson, meanwhile, told CapRadio on Wednesday that Kasirye was ultimately responsible for requesting money if her department needed it.
In an interview, he acknowledged he could have done more to help her navigate the request process. He also said the public health office has been “running now for six months on fumes,” despite days earlier indicating the office was in good shape.
But he was quick to take credit for the county’s recent approval of $24 million in federal aid for public health.
“[That] is mostly from me,” he said in an interview. “My requests in terms of contact tracers, in terms of testing, in terms of navigators.”
That money has been approved, but not yet allocated or spent, according to county spokesperson Kimberly Nava.
“It’s important to note that just because many requests weren’t approved until July does not mean the department was not pursuing these [coronavirus response] efforts already,” Nava wrote an in an email.
Members of the county committee that oversees the federal coronavirus relief funds argue they’ve done their job: When they received a request, they evaluated it and distributed funds as necessary.
In an interview with CapRadio, Bruce Wagstaff, deputy county executive for social services who serves on the committee, indicated it’s not the committee’s responsibility to proactively solicit requests from individual departments — even during a pandemic, when the county health department might have significant needs.
“For all departments, it was clear that if you had this need, let us know about it,” Wagstaff said. “And then we'll respond to it as best we can.”
He suggested that, although funding is essential for any department to function, the public health office may not have submitted a request because it was so “focused on meeting the community's needs.”
“It has been a mad dash, I would say, to respond to this virus, and folks have learned as they've gone,” he said.
Majority Spent On Sheriff’s Payroll
Sacramento County projects it will lose $170 million in general fund revenues due to the pandemic.
According to the federal government, coronavirus relief aid cannot be used to directly backfill revenue losses. But county executive Nav Gill has argued the money can be used to cover the payroll and benefits for departments now in order to offset later revenue losses.
Through June 30, the county spent $104 million in federal aid on payroll and benefits in the sheriff’s office. It also used over $21 million to cover payroll and benefits in the probation department.
The move stands in contrast to how other California counties have used their federal relief dollars:
- Los Angeles County received $1.2 billion and dedicated more than half to testing and contact tracing. About $200 million went toward rent relief, child care and food assistance for residents. Another $160 million was used for grants to support small businesses. A county public information officer said less than 15% went directly to county departments, including ones in public safety.
- San Diego County projects it would spend about $330 million, with $100 million used to “test, track, and treat” COVID-19, according to information provided by county spokesperson Michael Workman. About $4.5 million and $1.3 million went to the county’s sheriff and probation departments, respectively.
- Riverside County received $431 million in federal relief funding and used over $338 million on government preparation and response to COVID-19, which includes medical supplies, contact tracing, testing, temporary public medical facilities and county employee time and labor reimbursement. The county allocated just over $6.275 million to the sheriff’s office and about $182,000 to the probation department, according to spokesperson Brooke Federico.
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office is not receiving more money than it was originally budgeted. The money it received in federal coronavirus funding is now freed up in the general fund.
What’s in it for Sheriff Scott Jones’ office? They’ve secured funding for their payroll and don’t have to worry as much about facing cuts.
But the optics stirred controversy. Dozens of people called into Sacramento’s board of supervisors meeting Tuesday to decry the use of federal aid for the sheriff’s office. The criticisms come as some activists are calling to reduce or eliminate funding for the police.
And public health experts say it was a mistake to not fund public health up front, especially as the county saw a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths.
“I’m disappointed it appears that the funds were not dedicated toward public health first,” said state Senator Dr. Richard Pan, who represents parts of Sacramento County and holds a masters degree in public health from Harvard University. “The COVID-19 pandemic is what’s underlying all of our challenges with unemployment, businesses being closed and schools being closed. That should be our top priority for the funds.”