Gov. Ned Lamont said the state is sympathetic to the needs of the state’s cities and towns. Cloe Poisson /
Gov. Ned Lamont said the state is sympathetic to the needs of the state’s cities and towns. Cloe Poisson /

Gov. Ned Lamont announced Thursday that $75 million in federal coronavirus relief funds will be made available to cities and towns.

That’s less than what municipalities hoped for, but more than the direct pandemic-related costs local leaders have reported to date.

“We are certainly sympathetic to the needs of the municipalities during this unprecedented public health emergency and remain willing to assist them in offsetting their related expenses,” the governor said.

His budget director, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw, noted this is just the latest round of aid to municipalities.

Communities have received between $100 million and $200 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] grants, and the state channeled another $111 million in federal aid to local school districts, chiefly to assist with remote learning costs, she said.

The latest funding, coupled with earlier assistance, “will allow us to support all of our cities and towns throughout the rest of the year,” McCaw said, adding communities only reported about $40 million in direct, pandemic-related expenses when surveyed in April.

But municipal advocates say that $40 million wish list doesn’t tell the full story because many local leaders are unclear about the costs they should claim.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities thanked Lamont in a statement Thursday, but noted that federal guidelines recommend states give municipalities as much as 45% of their Coronavirus Relief Fund allocations. Connecticut received $1.4 billion from this fund, and CCM noted 45% of that amount would represent about $630 million — far more than the state is giving municipalities.

“Even though the rest of the world is hunkering down or slowly reopening under the pandemic, all municipal services must continue; lives depend on them,” the statement continued. “Connecticut municipal leaders and their property taxpayers continue to be burdened by unexpected and un-budgeted pandemic-related expenses –while local revenues steadily shrink.”

Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, added that “COST is very relieved that federal funding is on its way. … This funding will help municipalities reopen schools and town halls safely and position our communities for long-term social and economic recovery. “

Emergency funds can’t be used to supplant lost tax receipts or other vanishing revenues, however. They apply only to clearly invoiced expenses. And those costs have to be above and beyond anything for which communities budgeted.

Administration officials didn’t rule out awarding additional aid to towns down the road.

“The other great wild card out there is the federal government,” Lamont said, referring to growing uncertainty about whether Congress will enact additional relief.

“The federal government can just borrow their way to prosperity” the governor added, while Connecticut, like most states, is constitutionally mandated to balance its budget.

McCaw also noted that the demand for federal relief funds exceeds the supply.

Of the $1.4 billion Connecticut has received to date through the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund, state officials have designated about $650 million.

Besides funds for municipalities, Connecticut also has distributed funds from this pool for nursing homes, COVID-19 testing, personal protective equipment, sanitation of state buildings, state agency overtime costs, housing support, and relief for public colleges and universities, McCaw said.

The administration still is weighing the needs of nonprofit social service agencies, small hospitals and the University of Connecticut Health Center, McCaw said, adding no one knows what costs local school districts may face when classes resume this fall.

“There’s a very broad list and we’re going to continue to prioritize,” McCaw said.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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