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State lawmakers question Las Vegas’ use of COVID relief money

CARSON CITY — The decision by the city of Las Vegas to spend the vast majority of its $119 million in federal coronavirus relief funds on its own payroll drew the ire of some lawmakers who questioned why Nevada’s largest city didn’t focus more on relief programs for its nearly 650,000 residents.

Las Vegas received $118.9 million directly from the federal government via the CARES Act earlier this spring. Of that, $104.9 million, or about 88 percent, went directly to the city’s payroll, much of it towards its public safety budget. That budget includes the fire department, city marshals and a portion of the Metropolitan Police Department’s funding.

About $4.3 million went toward salaries for employees who had shifted to different jobs because of the pandemic. The city has spent about $6.4 million on economic support programs, and $400,000 to purchase personal protective equipment.

That irked some state lawmakers who expressed their concern with the city’s allocations on Friday during a meeting of a state committee that oversees how and where coronavirus relief dollars have been used by local governments.

“If 90 percent of what you received went to salaries and backfilling your regular government operations, then who picked up your shortfall to actually help your residents?” Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno, D-North Las Vegas, asked the city’s representatives during Friday’s meeting.

Las Vegas officials believed the $1,200 stimulus checks sent to most Americans in April and the money that the federal bill put toward personal protective equipment, was enough to bolster the community, city manager Scott Adams, said in response to Monroe-Moreno.

“We believe that the intent of the CARES Act money that went to the larger cities was to help shore those cities up financially the way the CARES Act did to businesses and households through those other mechanisms,” said Adams, who is retiring next month.

Hardest hit state

Nevada was one of the states hardest hit by the economic crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the southern part of the state where the gaming and tourism industries that drive the state’s economic engine were shuttered for months. The Las Vegas area’s unemployment rate of 15.5 percent ranking substantially higher than other parts of the state, according to the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation.

The way Las Vegas used its coronavirus relief funds stands in contrast to its neighboring governments, with other municipalities spending significantly larger slices of their relief funds on assistance programs for residents and businesses.

North Las Vegas, for example, earmarked about 83 percent of its $23.8 million in relief funds for grants and community assistance programs, such as rent and mortgage assistance.

“Our governing body determined that the best way to spend this money would be to support residents and the citizens of North Las Vegas,” North Las Vegas Director of Finance Will Harty said during Friday’s meeting.

Clark County has spent about $147 million of the $295 million that it received from the federal government. $57 million of that went to local cities as subgrants, $51 million has gone toward the county’s response to the virus and measures to mitigate its spread, $36 million has gone toward programs for residents, such as rental assistance and food programs, and about $2.5 million has gone toward business recovery.

Similarly, Henderson received $29.6 million from Clark County. Its biggest spending buckets thus far have been childcare, education and residential services ($9.6 million) and COVID-19 staff response time ($8 million).

City facing deficit

Adams, the city manager for Las Vegas, said that the city was facing a $200 million deficit caused by the economic shutdown, and that spending what it did on payroll helped to avoid layoffs of some 200 employees. He added that they believe that because they have been able to keep government intact, they will be better suited to dole out assistance to the city’s residents if a second relief package were to emerge from Washington.

“It was a policy decision really driven by maintaining essential functions. And our primary essential functions that our [city] council has prioritized has been public safety,” Adams said.

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, disagreed with that approach.

“I question that decision in terms of trying to keep the government whole,” Kieckhefer said. “The purpose of government is to serve, not employ.”

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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