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Coronavirus aid starts flowing in Cass County

The Cass County Courthouse in October 2016.
The Cass County Courthouse in Fargo . Forum file photo

FARGO — It's still a waiting game to see what the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic will be on local governments and agencies — similar to the unknowns of what the pandemic will be like in coming weeks.

One thing is for sure as Fargo Cass Public Health Director Desi Fleming said this week: The coronavirus is still here.

City Finance Director Kent Costin said "uncertainty" was the message he heard from many local government finance managers from across the nation during a virtual meeting last week. It's also what he's seeing in local numbers.

Costin and other officials continue to closely monitor the situation, but it's so far so good for the city and Cass County budgets with no drastic cuts or layoffs yet, although they are already planning for next year and budgets look tight.

More immediately, there's been good and bad news.

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Hope has been boosted by $8.6 million in funding for the city and FCPH to go along with an earlier $7.6 million federal grant for the metro's public transportation system to keep it operating.

The $8.6 million was approved in the past few days by the North Dakota Department of Health on an as-needed basis for a variety of pandemic fight efforts.

The money is from the federal CARES Act, as was the transit funding, that passed Congress in March and is trickling down from the state to help local residents.

FCPH accountant Melissa Perala said $2.4 million is the county's share of health funding split among all 53 North Dakota counties based on population.

The other $6.2 million is for the city and the area's Red River Valley Task Force to address problems in the state's epicenter of cases.

Perala said about $1.25 million will be used to hire two more contact tracers a week for as long as needed at $30 an hour and for mobile outreach workers, equipment, care packages for those quarantined and for other staff.

No additional employees have been hired at FCPH as 59 workers within the agency have been transferred full- or part-time to help fill contact-tracing needs and other pandemic-related jobs, she said. That can change with the extra funding, as some can return to former positions.

Another $90,000 of the funds is for public health messaging about the pandemic.

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The largest chunk of the newest funding is $3.5 million for quarantine support teams that Fargo City Planning Director Nicole Crutchfield, a member of the task force, said will help those who need basics such as food, safe housing, transportation and child care. So far, she said, there's no need for a community isolation facility in the plan, but funding is in place.

The health funds will also be used to add a 211 helpline worker and for a pilot program to help new Americans needing translation services or access to computers.

Another $1 million can be used by Family Health Care Centers in Fargo to do their own coronavirus testing for low-income residents.

Meanwhile, at the Cass County Courthouse, commissioners this past week approved requesting $6.4 million from the state's CARES Act funding, mostly for a $6.2 million remodel and expansion of the jail intake area.

Construction drawings for the project were budgeted this year, but County Administrator Robert Wilson said with the heightened virus worry and the many different law enforcement officers using the facility "the need is imminent."

The county's request also asks for $60,000 to add negative airflow to 12 jail cells, an increase from the current four cells, to provide for better separation of quarantined inmates.

Commissioners requested another $25,000 for social distancing work by enlarging courtrooms and $53,000 for a new closed-circuit audio and video line between the jail and courtrooms.

After almost all court hearings were delayed in the past few months, the court has resumed a robust schedule that boosts pressure to make courtrooms safer even though the rest of the courthouse remains closed to visitors except by appointment.

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Wilson said decisions on the requests are expected on June 18 when a state emergency panel, including Gov. Doug Burgum, meets.

As for the overall county budget, Wilson said it seems that it "should be OK for now for what we need to do" but as they work on next year's budget scaling back is likely ahead.

Costin has a similar position on the city's current $103 million general fund budget and said they are also already working on next year's finances.

Ironically, Costin said sales tax collections through the first part of the year are actually up 10% only because of the lag in collections that reflects a strong Christmas shopping season, with those tax payments not rolling in until earlier this year.

However, signs aren't promising. City sales tax collections for March were down 21% compared to a year ago, while lodging taxes were down 75% from April 2019, Costin said. Statewide, it's a similar situation, which Costin said could affect state aid to the city.

Overdue accounts on city utility payments by businesses are also increasing.

Costin said that money flowing from the state is a bright note. He doesn't know if more will be coming as the state is "working its way through" about $1.25 billion in CARES Act funds they received.

Costin said smaller cities were left out of direct stimulus money in the CARES Act as it was directed only to cities larger than 500,000 residents and the states.

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So state help in coming weeks could be a boost as could Congress if it agrees to provide more aid directly to local governments to help with first responder costs.

Costin said that aid would help the city's budget this year as 40.7%, or $40.4 million, goes to police and fire public safety costs.

"No one has a crystal ball on how this will pan out," he said. "You just have to use your best judgment in making decisions."

"We've never had to deal with this, ever," Costin said.

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