BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — With California counties receiving a total of $16 billion in relief funds, the health advocacy organization California Pan-Ethnic Health Network sought to audit counties as a way to ensure the funds were properly spent. How was that money allocated in Kern County?
Although there was very little regulation on how the counties could spend the money, there were recommendations by the Treasury Department like:
- Responding to public health and negative economic impacts of the pandemic.
- Providing premium pay to essential workers.
- Using funds to make up for revenue loss during the pandemic.
- And lastly, making necessary investments in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.
The organization looked at spending reports, and engagement efforts, and sent all counties questionnaires. Then based on that information, they created scorecards.
Kern County has been allocated $174 million and of that $87 million was received last May and the remaining $87 million is set to come this month.
Although the money was spent within legal parameters, the organization gave Kern County an overall score of ‘C’ because they think the funds could have gone toward helping more underserved communities and say the county could have done a better job getting community input on how to spend the money.
"With Kern County, we found there are two programs that they potentially spent ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money toward law enforcement. One of them being the Premium Pay Program," said Weiyu Zhang, the community advocacy manager with California Pan-Ethnic Health Network.
The Premium Pay Program gave $3,000 to eligible county employees, which includes law enforcement. County documents justify this by stating they continued to make sure the public was being served and protected while dealing with their own pandemic stress.
Although the organization agrees with compensating employees working through the pandemic, they think the money could have gone to different essential workers, like "grocery shop workers, or transit workers, health care workers and agriculture workers."
There was also a second program that created a similar concern. About the $89 million, some of which came from the COVID funds was used to keep county services operating as usual despite budget shortfalls brought on by the pandemic. The expenditure report shows the money was given to services such as police, detentions, probations, animal control, and park improvements.
To put it into perspective, the county budget of $3.3 billion includes over $268 million for the sheriff's department.
Breaking down how the COVID relief funds are being spent according to court documents:
- The largest chunk at 44-percent went toward stabilization and revenue loss.
- The second-biggest area with 24-percent was public health emergency impacts like homeless outreach and public hospital financial impacts.
- Premium Pay made up 12-percent of the funds.
- Nine-percent went toward water infrastructure in Lamont and replacing and installing wells.
- Eight-percent improvements to sewer infrastructure.
- Public WiFi at county parks cost about 5-percent of the budget
- Finally, almost 3 percent went toward "addressing disproportional impacts of COVID-19" and the funds were allocated for improving parks.
The argument lies in the potential that these funds could have been used for communities most affected by COVID versus where they actually went cand that is what the scorecards based on a 51 question survey looked to measure.
"We wanted to know what kinds of projects that the county had allocated or spent funds on," said Jeffrey Kho, senior projects manager, researcher developing scorecards at California Pan-Ethnic Health Network. "We wanted to know how is the county trying to promote racial equity through the uses of these funds and how is the county engaging their communities in the decision making and what kinds of measures did the county make to ensure transparency, accessibility and accountability
The county did not agree to an interview but sent a statement saying: "We do not think a response to this report card will add value, since CPEHN does not accurately depict the extensive breadth of our SLFRF investment across various communities, organizations, and business sectors within kern county."
23ABC has previously reported on the county's efforts during the early stages of the pandemic sending out "canvassing" teams into various parts of underserved communities, going door to door, handing out PPE, doing testing, and giving out vaccines to those who wanted or needed it. However, it does not seem this was part of this particular funding
Meanwhile, the organization says the scores are not meant to punish or call out the county but rather better reflect on how the funds are used.
"The scorecard is meant as a learning opportunity as a learning opportunity for counties to think about how to do that," said Kho. "We think counties can do things like working closer with community members, to find specific needs and solutions people want public dollars going towards. Making sure that everyone has an opportunity to benefit from investments like parks, broadband, and public health."
The county will be getting the remaining $87 million this month and have until 2024 to be allocated and 2026 to be spent and the organization hopes this scorecard prompts a review and come changes in the distribution of funds.
SEE THE FULL REPORT BELOW: