By BRIAN SLODYSKO, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — With a sudden injection of $140 million, officials in Broward County, Fla., recently opened an upscale hotel that will feature Atlantic Ocean views and an 11,000-foot spa squares.
In New York, Dutchess County has pledged $12 million for renovations to a minor league ballpark to meet requirements the New York Yankees have set for their farm teams.
And in Massachusetts, lawmakers paid $5 million to pay off debts to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate in Boston, a nonprofit created to honor the late senator who struggled financially. .
The three separate expenditures have one thing in common: Each is among dozens of projects that state and local governments across the United States are funding with federal coronavirus relief money despite not having much to do with fighting the pandemic, a review by The Associated Press has found.
The spending is a fraction of the $350 billion made available through last year’s US bailout to help state and local governments through the crisis. But these are examples of uses of aid that are inconsistent with the justification put forward by Democrats for the record $1.9 trillion bill: the money was desperately needed to save jobs, help people in distress , open schools and increase vaccinations.
Republicans are already balking at securing additional pandemic relief funds that President Joe Biden has called for, and programs that seem far removed from those directly combating the virus will likely add to GOP resistance.
“They have to hold us accountable,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who unsuccessfully tried to amend Democrats’ bill last year to add more limits on how the money could be spent. “Show us how you’ve already spent the money Congress gave you,” he said, adding, “It’s hard to imagine how a four-star hotel helps solve the pain of COVID.”
Many of the projects identified by the AP echo spending disasters such as the $398 million “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, which was canceled in 2007 after a public outcry.
But with permissive Treasury Department rules governing how pandemic money can be spent, state and local governments face few limitations. New Jersey has allocated $15 million for improvements to sweeten the state’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup. In Woonsocket, Rhode Island, officials have allocated $53,000 for hotel renovations of town.
“Outrageous” and “just crazy” is how Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., described some of the spending, which she said was an affront to responsible local governments.
“Our hospitals have been overwhelmed due to the pandemic and now someone has a hotel somewhere?” she added.
Among the projects and expenditures identified by the PA:
— $400 million to build new prisons in Alabama, representing nearly a quarter of the total assistance the state will receive under the program.
— tens of 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 that it would spend $120,000 to revamp its tourism website.
— $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 features niche sports competitions such as DanceSport, korfball and Frisbee.
— $2.5 million to hire new parking enforcement officers in Washington, DC
— $2 million to help Pottawattamie County, Iowa purchase a private ski area.
— $1 million to repay outstanding alimony in St. Louis. A city memo says owing child support prevents some people from looking for work because overdue payments are garnished from paychecks; the program would “empower individuals” by reimbursing a portion.
– $300,000 to establish a museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, in honor of Major Taylor, a famous early 20th century black cyclist known as “Worcester Whirlwind” who died in 1932.
Treasury Department spokeswoman Liz Bourgeois called the program a success that allowed state and local governments to “recover from financial distress” and “carry out their own strategies to restore affected jobs and industries.” by the pandemic.
“Ultimately, local governments are accountable to their communities for their decisions on how best to use their funds,” Bourgeois said in a statement.
In Broward County, officials defended their proposed 29-story, 800-room hotel, which will be county-owned but operated by a private management group.
They also dispute whether federal money is technically being used for the project. Broward County initially funneled $140 million in federal coronavirus assistance to the project, which violated Treasury Department rules that generally prohibit spending money on major capital projects. .
To circumvent the ban, the county adopted a common workaround.
The agenda for a Feb. 22 county board meeting details how: In a back-to-back round of unopposed votes, commissioners clawed back federal money they had given to the hotel. They then transferred it to the county general fund, describing it as a federal payment to cover lost tax revenue, which is an acceptable use. Then the money was transferred from the general fund directly to the project.
County Administrator Monica Cepero insisted that “no federal funds will be used to pay for the development costs of the hotel project.”
“The county has reviewed Treasury guidelines and changed its use (of) funds,” she said in a statement.
Some congressional lawmakers, however, are puzzled.
“These are basically money laundering funds meant to help hurting communities,” said Spanberger, who called for more oversight.
Local officials in New York’s Dutchess County, home to the $12 million minor league stadium project, said in a statement that the spending was “completely and absolutely consistent” with Congress’ intent for the ‘money.
“It’s ironic that this criticism comes from the same members of Congress who brought back the pork barrel assignments,” Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro said.
The Edward Kennedy Institute did not respond to messages seeking comment on the $5 million in coronavirus relief received from Massachusetts. The institute suffered a loss of $27 million between 2015 and 2019, according to tax returns for those years, the most recent publicly available.
Even in cases where local and state authorities may have violated spending rules, the sheer volume of money being pumped presents a challenge for government oversight offices that are often understaffed and poorly funded.
“The amount of money that was spent was so enormous and far beyond anything that had been spent in our country before, that our ability to audit every dollar spent is clearly stretched,” Romney said.
But groups lobbying on behalf of local governments in Washington say the spending rules were written permissively to give as much flexibility as possible.
“Counties should be able to determine what is best for them,” said Mark Ritacco, director of government affairs for the National Association of Counties. “Their residents will decide whether or not it was appropriate at the polls.”
The new findings closely follow previous AP reports, which revealed in October that states and major cities had spent only a tiny fraction of their relief funding six months after it was approved. This was despite their pleas for emergency money while Congress was still debating it.
Some school districts also had so much extra federal pandemic money that they spent it on new sports stadiums, arenas and football fields. In other cases, states have used discretionary funding to promote school choice initiatives that they failed to get passed by their legislatures.
Rich Delmar, the Treasury Department’s deputy inspector general, declined to say whether the bureau was actively investigating the uses of the state and local kitty.
“All projects are potentially subject to audit and investigation,” Delmar said in an email, adding that “we actively engage in monitoring.”
Biden, meanwhile, 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 will not be able to replenish depleted stocks of vaccines and therapeutics. Republicans say winning their support will depend on whether it will be paid for with money that has already been earmarked.
A deal the leaders reached this month would have been paid for by clawing back some of the state aid. But the deal fell apart after several governors objected and House Democrats rebelled.
At least one Democrat has sought to raise campaign funds through his opposition to local clawbacks.
“We had a little argument when they tried to take money out of Michigan,” reads a fundraising email from Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell. “I wasn’t going to let the Midwest hurt itself. We won.”
Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.
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