Illinois Towns Ask Pritzker: Where’s Our Money?

Towns and cities can’t access COVID-19 relief funding allocated to them by the federal government because the state is holding onto it instead, the Illinois Municipal League said Wednesday as it called on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration to release the money.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) ACT approved in Washington this spring allotted $150 million for Illinois municipalities, but thus far the IML said only $21 million has been released.

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“We’ve heard from communities in the suburbs and downstate, from Rockford to Decatur to Carbondale that said they have not received any funding but they have applied for it. We’ve heard from some communities that have received funding but that’s like 50 out of 1,100,” IML Director Brad Cole said. “This is seven months into the process. The money needs to start flowing or it’s going to be too late. We’re going to be in the next pandemic before the money for this pandemic gets released by the state of Illinois.”

Illinois is dispersing the grants to municipalities that apply to, and are approved by, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which determines the amount cities and towns are to be awarded.

DCEO Director Erin Guthrie said the agency has been working wit the IML and many localities are expressing interest — there has been a 250% increase in applications, dollars-wise. DCEO is “motivated to get that money out the door” and to reimburse local governments for their coronavirus-related expenses.

“Just in the past couple weeks, huge spike in the dollars that have gone out the door: $21 million going out the door with another $30 million in the pipeline, waiting to be approved by the comptroller,” she said. “So I think that number is going to start to really rapidly tick up.”

Cole said that DCEO “has put in so many restrictions and regulations and rules and processes, so many hoops and hurdles” that smaller communities without enough staff have decided it’s not worth it to apply.

Pritzker on Wednesday, in response to a media inquiry at an unrelated event, also said that many towns aren’t trying to get the money.

“We need the cities to step up to the plate to make those applications,” the governor said. “We’ve encouraged it, we’ve created seminars, webinars rather, so people can go online so they can lean how they can get ahold of that money.”

Cole said that shows how much red tape there is, considering the fiscal problems many governments are having due to the impact of the coronavirus.

“Everybody would take $10, or $20, or $30,000 in funding,” Cole said. “It’s not worth it because the state has made it so complicated and difficult that small communities have just thrown up their hands and said, ‘Forget it.’”

Pritzker said the money has to go through the state, in case the feds audit how municipalities use the relief funding.

“We’re going to get audited for every dollar that we got from the federal government,” Pritzker said. “Every dollar has to be accounted for and that’s why the state is running the program that it is.”

That doesn’t pass the smell test for Cole, who said that each municipality should be liable for how the funds are spent.
“The reality is, the process doesn’t have to be complicated,” he said.

The IML tried, and failed, to get the legislature to distribute the money to based on a per-capita share, using a formula similar to one that decides how the state disperses municipalities’ share of Illinois income tax revenues, via a fund called the Local Government Distributive Fund or LGDF.

Chicago and the largest counties – including Cook and DuPage —  didn’t have to wait; the largest public entities received money straightaway, allowing the them bypass the state.

Suburbs frustrated by restaurants restrictions

Meanwhile, DuPage County as well as Will, Kane and Kankakee counties will on Friday have to abide by new coronavirus mitigations, after reaching positivity rates and hospitality thresholds set by the state.

The restrictions forbid restaurants and bars from operating past 11 p.m. and from offering any indoor service; all gatherings are to be kept to 25 people or less.

A spokeswoman from Kane County’s public health department said its employees have been busy fielding calls from people – such as those who’ve got weddings planned for the weekend – about what the rollback means.

(The answer: Weddings are allowed, but not inside a licensed establishment and the guest list should be capped at 25.)

Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico said while restaurants and bars are ready to pivot, it’s disappointing.

He said Naperville has done more than 100 compliance checks and found businesses to be in compliance with mask and social distancing standards.

Chirico said he’s been trying to get contact tracing data that establishes a connection between the rise in COVID-19 cases and people dining out, leading him to believe the industry may be unfairly singled out.

“We’ve been at this contact tracing now on a spooled-up level for several months, so we should have a fair amount of data to support decisions. Make them fact-based and data-driven. After all, that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? Use data to make informed decisions,” he said. “My frustration is that I have not seen data that supports source transmission coming from bars and restaurants. Everything I’m hearing is it’s coming from family gatherings.”

Chirico said if friends and family are passing COVID-19 to one another, governments like Naperville could instead take steps to address that.

A spokeswoman at the Illinois Department of Public Health said the state is working to compile and make public information local health departments collect as they perform contract tracing, but could not offer a timeline.

At his now-renewed daily coronavirus press briefings, Pritzker on Wednesday waved printouts of studies he said show the link between the spread of the virus and restaurants and bars.

“There are 12 studies that I have right here that show that bars and restaurants are in fact a major spreading location for the virus,” Pritzker said. “It’s disconcerting to me that people want to just either lie about it or disbelieve the facts.”

Pritzker said his administration has done its best to hold off pulling liquor licenses from bars and restaurants out of compliance with COVID-19 guidelines, but that may change, should businesses pointedly thumb their noses at the rules. 

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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