New Castle County Council resists CARES Act 'Hero's Pay' proposal
New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer’s plan to use federal COVID-19 relief funds for so-called “hero’s pay” for some first responders is meeting increased resistance.
New Castle County Council voted Tuesday to appropriate part of the CARES Act funds the County has received — two weeks after refusing to pass an administration-backed ordinance to appropriate much more over concerns about clarity and transparency.
Councilman John Cartier, co-chair of the Administrative-Finance Committee, sponsored the new emergency ordinance. He said it was a result of collaboration with the administration and legal counsel.
“We are not appropriating the entire CARES grant funding, which is over $322 million,” he said. “This describes an appropriation of $85 million. We also have a table which details the object-level spending, for greater transparency and accountability to Council.”
But Council approved the new legislation only after cutting mention of “hero’s pay” — which County Executive Matt Meyer has proposed giving to active, full-time first responders working during the coronavirus crisis.
Councilman Penrose Hollins questioned the program’s merit.
“In my opinion, the real heroes are the nurses on the front-lines in [long-term care facilities] who are afraid to go home, who are afraid not to go to work because they may lose their jobs,” he said. “The real heroes are the sanitation workers who are exposed to everybody’s garbage, earning $25,000 a year with no hazard pay.”
Hollins described County strategies for combating the virus, including eliminating it from its communities, assisting vulnerable residents and putting residents back to work.
“I have difficulty connecting $10,000 bonuses for police officers to any of New Castle County’s policy strategies,” he said.
The New Castle County police union has also clashed with the County Executive over the proposed Hero’s Pay. Police are gunning for both the hazard pay and a form of emergency comp time they say they are owed during the coronavirus State of Emergency. County Exec. Meyer says police receiving both would amount to profiteering.
Councilman Jea Street Sr. questioned the legality of the proposed Hero’s Pay program.
“My understanding is you can't give bonuses [with CARES Act funds],” He said. “I know there’s been legal opinions rendered. But I really think that until such time as we go to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Delaware and get an opinion from the feds, we’re taking … an $11 million risk. Because if we’re wrong, and that money doesn’t qualify, you gotta pay it back.”
The state Department of Justice has released guidance stating federal COVID relief money cannot be used for bonuses to a class of employees.
“While bonuses are prohibited, government entities are likely permitted to access [coronavirus relief fund] funding for overtime and hazard duty pay so long as these expenses are caused by the government entity’s response to the Coronavirus Pandemic and not accounted for in the government entity’s last budget act,” the guidance reads.
According to DOJ, CARES Act hazard duty pay must be tied to a quantifiable amount of actual work already performed. “Merely calling a bonus ‘hazardous duty’ pay does not make it an eligible expenditure.”
County CFO Michael Smith emphasized during Tuesday’s Council meeting that individual expenditures, including the hazard pay, would still need to be approved by Council after the appropriation.
“When it comes to getting entered into a contract with municipalities, or paying Hero’s Pay to our employees, or giving municipalities money for Hero’s Pay, that requires a resolution,” he said. “Council [would have] to act.”
Smith said the Administration plans to put resolutions before Council June 9 that would distribute $1 million to fire companies and $5 million to municipalities. He said Hero’s Pay will not be in a resolution request from the Administration “because, at this time, we know there’s a number of different opinions, and discussions need to happen.”
Councilman Cartier said he hopes Council will cooperate to appropriate the rest of the County's CARES Act funds going forward.
“I think we’ve got a political context evolving that’s going to require councilmembers to really step up and appropriate and spend this money," he said. "We were given it by the federal government with the understanding that we would deploy it to fight the impacts of COVID-19.”
Council also unanimously passed a $303 million Fiscal Year 2021 operating budget.
There is no county-wide tax increase, but some residents may pay more based on the local service function rate for their area. That rate increases for the county's unincorporated areas and roughly half of its municipalities. The general operating budget tax rate decreases county-wide.