Merced County approves plan for spending $28.9 million in COVID relief funds

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Merced County leaders laid out a proposal for how to spend $28.9 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act, Tuesday.

County CEO Jim Brown explained, "We have tried to approach this to address the many challenges and uncertainties that are out there."

Supervisors say dividing the money up is a tough task.

"It's not fun. You're deciding on do you keep your government services going, do you provide additional services to our constituents, they're not easy choices, but they still have to be made," said Supervisor Scott Silveira.

The majority of the money, about $18.7 million, is set to go toward continuing county operations and emergency response costs. That includes salaries and benefits for staff members who are dedicated to dealing with the pandemic.

"In addition, funds could go to retrofitting county facilities, and that would include physical changes to accommodate social distancing needs, barriers, sanitation supplies and equipment," said Alexandra Pierce with the Merced County Human Services Agency.

The plan also sets aside nearly $7.3 million for a category called "community support." That includes food and housing assistance, along with more than three million dollars for small businesses.

Supporters say those businesses are the key to keeping people employed and generating tax revenue, but several community advocates argued more should go to help individuals, including undocumented workers with everything from rent and utility payments to health care.

Sheng Michelle Xiong from Leadership Council said, "Sometimes these funds that are available, they don't reach the most vulnerable. They don't qualify for these funds for one reason or another, especially when documentation is a requirement."

Board Chair Rodrigo Espinoza was the only one to vote against the plan because he wanted more money for each district instead of a $3 million reserve.

Supervisors say the plan will remain flexible, but they have to submit it to the state by September 1.

The county's public health leaders were not at Tuesday's meeting because they were in briefings with members of a state task force that's been in town since Monday to help address the county's spike in COVID-19 numbers.
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