West Valley City says Mayor Jenny Wilson withheld federal coronavirus aid

When Congress passed a major emergency relief bill this spring, Salt Lake County found itself with lots of money and little time to spend it.

Not that there hasn’t been a need for it, especially as COVID-19 infections have increased. Mayor Jenny Wilson praised her staff for directing the funds to where they would do the most good. The county has set up testing centers and quarantine facilities. The county health department has hired an army of contact tracers. Millions of dollars have gone to help schools and small businesses. The mayor has directed the largest portion of the county’s CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funds — $64 million — directly to the county’s 23 municipalities.

But at least one city claims it has stiffened. And that’s blaming Wilson.

“She’s chosen to withhold more money from us for whatever her reasons, and our argument is that it’s not appropriate,” West Valley City Manager Wayne Pyle said.

West Valley City got $8 million in federal cash. He believes he deserved $12 million to use for protective gear for city employees and other needs.

Most Utah CARES funds have gone directly to the state, to be distributed to counties as it sees fit. Two counties, Salt Lake and Utah, had large enough populations to receive their share directly.

[RELATED: Against a spending deadline, counties express frustration over coronavirus aid restrictions]

When Salt Lake County received its $204 million this spring, it followed the state’s formula and allocated the money based on city population. The funds were to be disbursed in three equal installments, Pyle said, also reflecting how state officials decided to distribute federal funds to other counties.

On Dec. 4, however, Pyle and Deputy City Manager Nicole Cottle said the mayor’s office had told them the third installment would not come.

This left the city feeling aggrieved, receiving only two-thirds of what it thought was promised.

“We cooperated very closely with these guys on everything they wanted to do,” Pyle said. “Two weeks ago we still felt like we were going to ask and get this [final] slice. Then two weeks ago, all of a sudden, it was, ‘There will be no third installment, end of story.’

All CARES dollars came with a December 30 spending deadline. Anything left over would go to the federal government. Despite complaints and appeals to the county, this delay means that all county funds have been affected and West Valley City has no options.

“To have that rug pulled out from under us a month before the end of the year is very frustrating,” Pyle said.

The pandemic has hit West Valley City particularly hard. It accounts for more than 15% of Salt Lake County’s coronavirus cases, despite making up 11.8% of the population. Only Salt Lake City has had more COVID-19 infections or coronavirus-related deaths, but West Valley City has had the most hospitalizations. West Valley City also has a large population of Hispanic, Latino and Pacific Islander residents, who have been disproportionately affected by the virus.

In an interview, Wilson and his team said the county never promised cities a third installment of CARES money.

“We told them around July that we would be looking at an additional amount, but we needed to make sure our priorities were funded before that third distribution,” Wilson said.

At the time, the mayor said, “our cases were manageable. Then things got worse and cost a lot more” when a wave of infections hit in the fall.

[RELATED: Six months into pandemic, Salt Lake County reflects on past successes and challenges ahead]

The county also took advantage of federal government advice that it could use CARES Act money to pay public safety employees and then use the budget savings to fund vaccination efforts in 2021.

Wilson added that the county also directed much of its pandemic response to West Valley City. He used $1.6 million to turn the city’s Maverik Center into a place where people could take coronavirus tests. The county translated educational materials about the pandemic and undertook outreach efforts in multiple languages ​​to also reach the city’s diverse population.

“West Valley has been on my radar since day one with this health emergency and will continue to be until the end,” Wilson said. “I need West Valley to be a partner with me.”

Darrin Casper, the county’s deputy mayor for finance and administration, said he personally met with West Valley City officials in late August to inform them that no third installment of CARES funding would be coming.

“They were put on notice at that time,” he said.

Cottle, the city’s deputy manager, confirmed the August meeting with Casper, but said it was actually the city not receiving its second round of funding, not its third.

The city earned its second round of CARES money after the August meeting, Cottle said Oct. 15.

But Wilson and Casper said the “no postgraduate funding round” message has been echoed in the county’s regular Friday meetings with municipalities for weeks. The confusion may have arisen after the county warned cities they could receive last-minute dollars if the county couldn’t spend it all by the Dec. 30 deadline, county officials said, but those funds didn’t were not guaranteed.

“I think other cities would check it out as well,” Wilson added.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall issued a statement via text message.

“We appreciate the county’s focus on ensuring we have the resources to roll out a vaccination plan,” she wrote. “We are also convinced that we need dollars now for economic recovery, before the health consequences are compounded by an even deeper economic crisis.”

Mendenhall’s office did not respond to a question about whether the statement meant she wanted a third round of CARES funding for Salt Lake City.

Reached by phone, Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said he believed the county had been “fair and careful” with its pandemic funds. In addition to $3.6 million in direct CARES distribution, Wilson has earmarked $150,000 to set up a temporary overflow homeless shelter in Millcreek.

“I understand why West Valley has made the most noise about this, [but] they did not specify what they would spend this money on. If they do, I mean, give them some money,” Silvestrini said. “I don’t think we should give money just to give money.”

Pyle countered that West Valley City has a lot of ongoing pandemic costs.

“A lot of our frustration, a lot of this spending that we’re doing is so we can comply with the mayor’s statements,” which, Pyle added, the city supports. “We’re opening, closing, restricting, closing, preparing, buying equipment, cleaning and all those related expenses that we wouldn’t have in a year when we normally operate.”

He also acknowledged that his vocal complaints may have angered the mayor’s office, but he owed it to the residents of West Valley City to find more funding.

“What irritates me about this is that it’s not that difficult. It didn’t have to be so difficult,” Pyle said. “There’s really no need for this controversy.”

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