An accounting of Denver’s $127 million in federal COVID relief funding — and the challenges of keeping it straight

In the COVID-19 pandemic, the very definition of a public health crisis, Denver spent less than 5% of federal stimulus money on public health itself.

But city officials say there’s a good reason for that: In part, the spending guidelines for Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding were unclear, so the city felt it best to put the money toward more general expenses. Millions more for Denver’s public health response came from other sources like the city’s special revenue funds and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The CARES Act became a household phrase nearly a year ago, as the federal government injected $150 billion to combat something few had seen into states’ and cities’ arsenal — including $127 million in Denver. But auditors and accountability experts say uncertain guidelines and tight spending deadlines attached to that money raise concerns. And while there are oversight mechanisms in place to ensure the money is spent properly across the country, they’re different from government to government — and much of it won’t be reviewed for months.

“I don’t believe the reporting requirements back to the federal government are very strident,” Denver Auditor Tim O’Brien said. “They’re more focused on getting the money out than the accountability.”

The vast majority of Denver’s CARES Act funding has gone or will go to economic recovery efforts, emergency shelters and citywide operations, financial data shows, while less than 18% combined has been spent on public health, aid for housing, food insecurity and other efforts.

Almost $109 million of Denver’s $127 million in federal money is out the door or “tagged for a very specific purpose,” according to Kiki Turner, deputy director of communications and public affairs for the city’s Department of Finance. The rest must be spent by the end of the year or returned to the federal government.

Because there’s more than just federal money available for Denver’s pandemic relief and recovery, Turner said the city put CARES Act funding toward seven categories: citywide operations, economic recovery, food assistance, public health, emergency sheltering, housing support and support to individuals impacted by COVID-19.

Those priorities fit well within the broader classifications seen across the rest of the country, Brookings Institute Metropolitan Fellow Joe Parilla said. But he noted that analyzing spending while it’s still happening can be difficult, because each government must tailor expenses to their unique needs.

Such a heavy focus on economic recovery from CARES Act funding — $18.83 million — makes sense and is comparable to Chicago’s approach, said Allison Flanagan, director of policy analysis for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“When people are employed, people spend money and when people spend money, the economy grows,” Flanagan said.

And the bulk of Denver’s larger public health response wasn’t from CARES Act, but other sources like special revenue funds and expenses that will be reimbursed by FEMA, Turner said. A February report shows some of that money has gone toward $13.7 million for testing and supplies, $5.2 million for workplace safety, cleaning and janitorial supplies and $4.7 million for medical equipment and supplies.

Accountability challenges

Still, Flanagan pointed to several questionable expenses with CARES Act money, including $800,000 for a prefabricated public restroom on the 16th Street Mall, which is expected to open this spring, and $105,000 to replace all hand-operated toilet, urinal and faucet fixtures in each of Denver Public Library’s 26 branches.

“That has very little return on investment,” Flanagan said. “If you were to take the $800,000 and the other bathrooms and put that toward (personal protective equipment), toward getting people back to work, you’re getting people to spend money, you’re helping your economy.”

But Turner said the bathroom on the 16th Street Mall could help people experiencing homelessness and will be useful as the city reopens further. The improvements at the library branches, she said, also help keep the homeless and other patrons safe. All of the city’s library branches closed last March, though nine are scheduled to reopen with limited hours this week.

Flanagan also noted that some cities like Chicago spent millions from CARES Act allotments on police departments, though Turner said none of the city’s CARES Act money went toward the Denver Police Department.

Large spending packages like the CARES Act do lead to issues when it comes to tracking where the money goes and ensuring it is spent in ways connected to the pandemic, O’Brien said.

His office is tracking the city’s spending as it happens, but declined to discuss specifics because it’s still underway. He noted that an outside firm will also audit Denver’s CARES Act spending and prepare a report that should be available by late summer.

It’ll be submitted to the Federal Audit Clearinghouse, said Beryl Davis, a director in the federal Government Accountability Office’s Financial Management and Assurance team. She didn’t know which agency in the federal government would examine those reports once they’re submitted.

“COVID just dumped a lot more money into the states and local governments,” Davis said. “Certainly it’s a challenge for them to account for all of this and ensure it’s properly spent.”

O’Brien noted that tracking the money could be complicated further as Congress works on another stimulus bill worth $1.9 trillion. Turner and other city officials said Denver could see an equal amount from that bill as it got from CARES Act funding.

The breakdown

The city unveiled a website late last month to track CARES Act funding, which updates daily. Here are some of Denver’s largest expenditures outlined by a Feb. 21 Department of Finance report given to the City Council.

Citywide Operations: $37.21 million spent or committed. Large expenditures include:

  • $20.59 million on citywide payroll.
  • $11.17 million for shelter operations, personal protective equipment and “Emergency Operations Center needs.”
  • $3.36 million to buy laptops, software licenses, cybersecurity tools and more so city staff can work remotely.
  • $987,951 for safety “enhancements,” touchless restroom improvements, air sterilization and disinfection systems for Denver’s “cultural venues.”

Economic Recovery: $18.83 million spent or committed. Large expenditures include:

  • $11.58 million in grants of up to $7,500 each for more than 2,000 small businesses.
  • $3.37 million split into more than 300 grants of up to $15,000 each for local nonprofits.

Food Assistance: $2.99 million spent or committed in grants to expand food, grocery and meal programs.

Public Health: $5.29 million spent or committed. Large expenditures include:

  • $2.24 million to give out about 6,800 kits of PPE to small businesses and nonprofits.
  • $1.05 million to create learning spaces where students can complete schoolwork in a “safe and structured environment.”

Emergency Sheltering: $33.99 million spent or committed. Large expenditures include:

  • $20.95 million for emergency homeless shelters.
  • $13.04 million to expand and improve existing group homeless shelters, increase capacity and services for guests.

Housing Support: $8.2 million spent or committed. Large expenditures include:

  • $7 million for the city’s Temporary Rental & Utility Assistance program.
  • $1 million in rent assistance and housing vouchers for people experiencing homelessness.

Support to Individuals Impacted by COVID-19: $2.24 million spent or committed. Large expenditures include:

  • $1 million for the Left Behind Workers Fund for those who lost their jobs because of the pandemic.
  • $396,650 to provide computer access to those seeking jobs.
  • $300,000 to support artists and gig workers in need of food, housing and medication.
  • $300,000 to buy five new electric cars and charging stations for residents of low-income and under-resourced neighborhoods.

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