BERKELEY HEIGHTS — The Town Council passed a resolution during Tuesday night's meeting authorizing the township to accept COVID-19 aid not to exceed approximately $760,000.
But according to Mayor Angie Devanney, residents need to manage expectations when it comes to how much money Berkeley Heights will actually receive given the obstacles involved in securing COVID-19 relief money.
The CARES Act is a $150 billion federal relief fund that expands relief to municipalities. According to the CARES Act, a local government with a population that exceeds a population 500,000 will be eligible for direct payment from the Treasury Department. In Berkeley Heights' case, Union County functions as an intermediary when distributing money between the federal government and the town.
The CARES Act says money requests or reimbursements “are necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease,” according to the U.S. Department of The Treasury website. The aid distribution process overseen by the county determines whether requests from towns like Berkeley Heights are in fact eligible.
“It’s difficult. The county is trying to do their best with municipal applications, trying to figure out which requests and expenditures are eligible for CARES Aid,” said Devanney who spoke with TAPinto on Wednesday, Oct. 29.
“What we don’t want to happen is the federal government to come in six months, a year from now and say ‘hey Berkeley Heights you purchased this with CARES money, but that wasn’t an eligible use. You need to give the money back.’ That’s the worst to be in,” noted Devanney.
Devanney also characterized the process between the township and the county to be “onerous” due to significant back and forth between both government entities in guaranteeing the township is in compliance when requesting aid money.
Compounding the difficulty receiving CARES Act money is the fact that all aid must be received by Dec. 31 2020, when federal funding is set to expire,” said Devanney.
Devanney emphasized the importance of “setting expectations on how much we’ll be able to utilize” before the CARES Act aid expires at the end of the year.
“There are large expenditures within our original request that we won’t likely have in hand by Dec. 31,” said Devanney.
The mayor gave an example of a big-ticket item the township has been discussing—a new police car. An additional vehicle would protect police by making it possible for officers to occupy one car if necessary. “So they are not in jeopardy of spreading COVID-19,” explained Devanney. Big-ticket items, like a new police car purchased using federal relief funds would be near impossible to procure by years end, according to Devanney.
The mayor did say that there has been “back channel talk” about the federal government possibly extending the CARES Act. But this is far from guaranteed with no guidance coming down from the Governor’s office regarding this possible contingency, noted Devanney.
Berkeley Heights did receive a $70,000 check of CARES Act funding last week according to Devanney. She said the money is being put towards smaller items and equipment purchased by the township earlier in the year when COVID-19 swept across New Jersey.
These purchases include sanitizing items, backpacks and ultraviolet (UV) lights for the township’s first responders who were on the front lines.
Initially, these items were purchased using emergency snow funds when it wasn’t guaranteed that any federal funding was forthcoming to municipalities, noted Devanney. The $70,000 check was cleared by the county as an eligible reimbursement of funds for first responder aid.
Moreover, with the CARES Act set to expire, the Mayor is “incredibly hopeful” it will be extended.
That being said, Mayor Devanney is planning to potentially secure more aid for Berkeley Heights.
“We’re holding an emergency staff meeting Friday [Oct. 30] to discuss what we can confidently purchase and have in hand by December 31.”