Pandemic relief money spent on hotels, ballparks, ski slopes

WASHINGTON (AP) — Thanks to a sudden $140 million cash infusion, officials in Broward County, Florida recently broke ground on a high-end hotel that will have views of the Atlantic Ocean and an 11,000-square-foot spa.

In New York, Duchess County pledged $12 million to renovate a minor league baseball stadium to meet the set New York Yankees’ requirements for their farm teams.

And in Massachusetts, lawmakers gave $5 million to pay off debts of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate in Boston, a nonprofit established to honor the financially struggling late senator. Is.

The three different outlays have one thing in common: each is one of dozens of projects that state and local governments across the United States are funding with federal coronavirus relief funds despite little to do with the pandemic. , found a review by The Associated Press.

The spending amounted to a fraction of the $350 billion provided through last year’s US rescue plan to help state and local governments deal with the crisis. But they are examples of aid uses that are inconsistent with the argument that Democrats pitched for a record $1.9 trillion bill: desperately trying to save jobs, help people in distress, open schools and increase vaccinations. was required.

Republicans are already pushing for additional funding for the pandemic relief that President Joe Biden has requested, and programs that seem to veer away from directly fighting the virus, likely adding to the resistance in the GOP.

“They need to give us an account,” said R-Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who last year unsuccessfully tried to amend the Democrats’ bill on how the money could be spent. “Show us how,” he said. How have you already spent the money given by Congress,” he said, adding, “It is hard to imagine how a four-star hotel is helping solve the pain of COVID.”

More on the COVID-19 Pandemic

Several projects identified by AP Echo pork-barrel spending disasters such as Alaska’s $398 million “Bridge to Nowhere” were canceled in 2007 after a public outcry.

But state and local governments face some limitations on how pandemic money can be spent according to Treasury Department rules. New Jersey allocated $15 million for upgrades to sweeten the state’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup. In Woonsocket, Rhode Island, officials allocated $53,000 to rebuild City Hall.

“Outrageous” and “simply crazy” is how Representative Abigail Spanberger, D-VA, described some of the expenses, which she said were an insult to responsible local governments.

“Our hospitals were overwhelmed by the pandemic and anyone have a hotel somewhere now?” she added.

Projects and expenditures identified by the AP include:

– $400 million to build new prisons in Alabama, about a quarter of the total state aid through the program.

– Millions of dollars for tourism marketing campaigns in Puerto Rico ($70 million), Washington, DC ($8 million) and Tucson, Arizona ($2 million). The city of Alexandria, Virginia, also announced it would spend $120,000 to give its tourism website a makeover.

– $6.6 million to replace irrigation systems at two golf courses in Colorado Springs.

– $5 million approved by Birmingham, Alabama to support the 2022 World Games. The event includes exclusive sporting events such as dancesport, korfball and flying disc.

– $2.5 million to hire new parking enforcement officers in Washington, DC

-$2 million to buy a privately owned ski area, to help Pottawatami County, Iowa.

– $1 million to pay overdue child support in St. Louis. A city memo states that child support prevents some people from looking for work because overdue payments are garnished with paychecks; The program will “empower individuals” by paying a portion.

— $300,000 to set up a museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, honoring Major Taylor, a famous black cyclist from the turn of the 20th century known as the “Worchester Tornado”, who died in 1932 Was.

In Broward County, officials defended their planned 29-story, 800-room hotel, which would be owned by the county but operated by a private management group.

They also oppose whether federal funds are technically being used for the project. Broward County initially earmarked $140 million in federal coronavirus aid for the project, which went against Treasury Department rules that typically prohibit spending money on large capital projects.

To get around Prohibition, the county adopted a general solution.

The agenda for the county board meeting on February 22 described how: In a series of uncontested votes, the commissioners withdrew federal funds given to the hotel. He then transferred it to the county’s general fund, describing it as a federal payment to cover lost tax revenue, which is an acceptable use. The cash was then transferred from the general fund back to the project.

County Administrator Monica Sepero stressed that “no federal funds will be used to pay for any costs of developing the hotel project.”

“The county has reviewed Treasury guidance and revised its use of (funds),” she said in a statement.

However, some Congress MLAs are unfazed by this.

“They are basically money laundering funding meant to help victimized communities,” said Spanberger, who called for more oversight.

Local officials in New York’s Duchess County said in a statement for the $12 million minor league stadium project that the spending was “completely and absolutely consistent” with the intent of Congressional money.

“It is ironic that this criticism comes from the same members of Congress who have brought back the pork barrel earmarks,” said Duchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro.

The Edward Kennedy Institute did not respond to messages seeking comment on the $5 million in coronavirus aid it received from Massachusetts. Between 2015 and 2019 the institute worked out $27 million in damages, according to tax filings from those years, the most recent ones that are publicly available.

Even in cases where local and state officials have violated spending rules, the sheer amount of money presents a challenge to government surveillance offices, which are often weak and poorly funded.

“The amount of money our country has ever spent has been so large and so high that our ability to audit every dollar spent is clearly stretched,” Romney said.

But lobbying groups on behalf of local governments in Washington say the spending rules were written with permission to allow for as much flexibility as possible.

“Counties should be able to determine what’s best for them,” said Mark Ritako, director of government affairs for the National Association of Counties. “Their residents would decide whether it was fair at the ballot box.”

The latest findings track closely with previous reporting by the AP, which found in October that states and large cities spent a small portion of their relief funds six months after they were approved. This was despite his pleas for emergency cash when Congress was still debating it.

Some school districts had so much extra federal pandemic cash that they spent it on new sports stadiums, arenas and football turf. In other instances, states used discretionary funds to advance school choice initiatives, which they had failed to obtain through their legislatures.

Treasury Department Deputy Inspector General Rich Delmar declined to say whether the office had any active investigations into state and local pot of money use.

“All projects are potentially subject to audit and investigation,” Delmar said in an email, adding that “we are actively engaging in oversight.”

Meanwhile, Biden has said his administration urgently needs more money to pay for things that are directly related to the pandemic.

Without it, the White House says, the administration would not be able to replenish the dwindling stockpile of vaccines and treatments. Republicans say winning their support will depend on what is already being paid for appropriated funds.

A deal that the leaders struck this month would have been paid for by offsetting some of the aid for the states. But the agreement fell apart after protests from several governors and rebellion from rank-and-file House Democrats.

At least one Democrat sought to raise campaign cash from his opposition to getting local funding back.

“We had a little fight when we tried to get money from Michigan,” reads a fundraising email from Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell. “I was not going to let the Midwest suffer. we won.”

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Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.

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