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About Appeal tribune. (Silverton, Or.) 1999-current | View Entire Issue (June 30, 2021)
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 30, 2021
How Oregon spent $1.6B in federal COVID-19 relief funds
quick” urgency, Memmott said.
The auditors recommended three
measures the state could take to better
track the spending — two of which Coba
declined to pursue.
Coba agreed with one recommenda-
tion: that her agency remind local gov-
ernments to take measures to make sure
their requests were accurate and hewed
to federal guidance.
Auditors started looking at some of
the spending last summer.
In October, they wrote to the state’s
head operations oﬃcial, Katy Coba, de-
scribing their eﬀorts to examine a nar-
row slice of the CARES Act spending to
gauge whether these small govern-
ments spent it in line with federal
At the time of the letter to Coba, the
expenses had to be related to COVID-19,
incurred on or after March 1, 2020, and
had to be unplanned in the budget as of
March 27, 2020 — the date the federal
legislation authorizing the relief fund-
ing was passed.
The state auditors said their goal was
to help the state and local governments
“reduce the risk” of federal, state or local
government auditors questioning how
they spent the relief money.
They also wanted to get their study
done quickly so the entities could make
use of the information and course cor-
rect if needed, state auditors said in an
“Our review wasn't necessarily a
guardrail or a point-the-ﬁnger toward
the local government,” said Andrew
Love, audit manager on the project.
"We’re really there to provide assurance
to the Legislature and provide some cri-
tiques into the methods for which we
were dispersing the dollars."
In most cases, one of the main rea-
sons for a government audit is to assure
state leaders that local governments are
spending money responsibly, according
to Stephen Aikins, researcher and direc-
tor of the Master of Public Administra-
tion program at the University of South
The scope of an audit — what audi-
tors are asked to look at — and how
much information auditors can get af-
fect the results.
“Incomplete or undetailed data pro-
vided by the spending agency, as noted
by the auditor, should be a red ﬂag that
warrants further probing,” Aikins said.
“Relying on incomplete data to do audit
work can result in inconclusive or mis-
leading audit conclusions.”
The state provided limited guidance
and monitoring of local government
spending of relief funds, auditors said.
The state wasn’t collecting detailed
breakdowns of how funds were spent.
Oregon auditors sought to check
whether the local governments could
provide enough supporting informa-
tion, like contracts, invoices and ti-
mesheets. They said they were able to
get “clear and adequate” information
from 22 of the 34 entities they sought
Auditors were looking at cities, coun-
ties and special districts, such as park
Auditors knew they also wanted to
check out speciﬁc categories — for in-
stance, it was apparent that payroll and
leave expenses were a big share of the
money local governments spent in the
ﬁrst round of reimbursement requests.
The Statesman Journal and The Reg-
ister-Guard sought to analyze similar
information in their records requests
and also found this information was
easier to obtain from some places than
In some cases, initially local govern-
ments provided high-level overviews of
spending — totals they’d spent in each
Polk and Marion counties both took
months to fulﬁll requests for detailed
spending data. It took Lane County
about six weeks to provide “diaries,” or
more detailed information about how it
spent the relief funds, and charged $50
When the information arrived, the
diﬀerences were signiﬁcant. Marion
County provided reams of spending in-
formation in an Excel spreadsheet, free
of charge, but eight months after the pa-
per initially requested the information.
A county lawyer cited “the wildﬁres and
the ice storms” as reasons for the delay.
Polk County eventually sent dozens
of pages of COVID-related transactions
in a PDF, detailing roughly $2.7 million
in spending. The county’s lawyer, Mor-
gan Smith, noted in an email to the
Statesman that the spending was all
COVID-related, but not necessarily cov-
ered by relief funds as was requested.
“In order to isolate which of the pur-
chases on this ledger were speciﬁc to
(The Coronavirus Relief Fund), we
would have to delve deeper into the pa-
per trail which would take considerable
staﬀ time,” Smith said.
While the provided information did
detail speciﬁc transactions — how
much money, for what and to whom — it
largely didn’t include information that
would indicate whether Polk County got
a good deal for taxpayer money, such as
how much was purchased or why the
purchase was needed.
Polk County said it would have pro-
vided more information about how tax-
payer dollars were spent for an estimat-
ed fee of $220.
But other entities, like the state’s De-
partment of Administrative Services
and cities such as Stayton and Detroit,
readily provided detailed information.
Head auditor Kip Memmott, in re-
sponse to a lawmaker’s question about
relief money granted to arts venues, told
state lawmakers during a December
hearing that tracking money distributed
by the state to third parties, or “sub-re-
cipients,” can be challenging.
“Things like pandemic funding and
disaster relief funding, they’re so im-
portant as we know, but they also, from
an audit standpoint, are like a night-
mare,” Memmott said, “because they’re
big blocks of money coming into gov-
ernment control structures that are of-
ten, respectfully, weak or strained.”
There’s also a sense of immediate ex-
pectations for the money to have impact
where it is needed – a “spend them
payroll — $4.76 million for public health
and safety employees and $2.58 million
for employees whose work was dedicat-
ed to addressing the impacts of CO-
VID-19.The county spent another $1.4
million on sick time and medical and
family leave related to the pandemic.
All of the money spent on payroll
went toward "folks directly dedicated to
responding" to the pandemic, Tintle
"We're a public service agency," he
said, and the county provides that ser-
vice through its employees.
Claire Withycombe is a reporter at
the Statesman Journal. Contact her at
503-910-3821 or follow on Twitter
@kcwithycombe. Contact Register-
Guard city government watchdog
email@example.com. Follow her
on Twitter @MeganBanta_1.
Independence-based Polk County Fire
District 1, which received over $58,000 in
federal CARES Act funds, distributed
from the state, operates a mass casualty
trailer loaded with supplies including
personal protective equipment that was
funded through a previous regional grant.
The district served as the distribution
point for PPE for smaller ﬁre districts in
When supplies like N95 masks dwin-
dled at other ﬁre districts early in the
pandemic, it distributed its surplus to the
departments in need.
Stange, the Polk County Fire District 1
chief, said the district was oﬀered PPE
from the state ﬁre marshal’s oﬃce, but
also purchased its own from its regular
vendors when it could. If they could buy
supplies of their own, the state promised,
they would be reimbursed after the fact.
But when guidance from the state
about medics wearing surgical masks
when working with potentially ill pa-
tients was changed to require them to
wear N95 masks, they had to pivot,
“We were doing a lot of logistical ad-
justments to make sure we were in com-
pliance," he said.
More than a year into the pandemic,
the ﬁre district has nearly reﬁlled its re-
serves of equipment but hasn’t got paid
from CARES Act money through the state
for all of it.
“We continue to track it to today. We
don’t know what will come from that. If
we’re oﬀered reimbursement, that will be
a huge beneﬁt," Stange said.
Aumsville Rural Fire Protection Dis-
trict ﬁre chief Roy Hari said the depart-
ment made changes to its procedures
based on the evolving CDC guidance for
Fireﬁghters went from wearing a face
mask on one in every 30 calls to wearing
a mask on every call. At one point, the
ﬁreﬁghters also wore medical gowns on
The district, which receives ambu-
lance service from Santiam Memorial
Hospital in Stayton, stopped sending
ﬁreﬁghters into a house on every call and
instead let paramedics go into the house
to preserve the PPE.
Hari said the oﬃce of Marion County
Emergency Management coordinated
the ﬂow of PPE from the state, though the
department still used its existing supply
chain to get more PPE. It paid for it with
part of the over $4,000 of CARES Act
money it received from the state.
“We never had a problem where we
said we’re running short of anything,”
Hari said. “Between myself and the
training captain here, we were ahead of
the game enough and with the money
from the CARES Act, we were able to
never run short.
“If this would have snuck up on us and
the government had not made funds
available, this could have been a real
problem for small departments like us.”
Bill Poehler covers Marion County for
the Statesman Journal. Contact him at
503-399-6864, or follow him on Twitter
Remember that stimulus check you
got last year?
Maybe you spent the $1,200 – or
more if you have kids – on rent, grocer-
ies or gas. Maybe you paid medical bills,
splurged on takeout for your family or
saved it for a post-pandemic vacation.
Your city and county and the state of
Oregon got something similar: cash
from the federal government. In March
2020, as the pandemic was taking hold,
Congress approved $2 trillion in spend-
ing to respond to the pandemic through
the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Eco-
nomic Security, or CARES Act.
The state of Oregon received $1.6 bil-
lion in relief funds meant to keep the
wheels of state and local government
turning, from the concrete slabs of Sa-
lem City Hall to the vast sagebrush ex-
panses of Harney County.
While the state kept a portion, it also
allowed local governments to seek reim-
bursement for money they were spend-
ing to deal with the pandemic.
In ordinary times, local governments
are focused on running schools, paving
roads and making sure the drinking wa-
ter is safe. In extraordinary times such
as these, they also are tasked with fac-
ing the health and economic conse-
quences of the deadly pandemic.
Using relief funds authorized by the
CARES Act, counties tracked the spread
of COVID-19, provided protective gear
like masks, handed out relief to busi-
nesses struggling to make ends meet
and, eventually, helped to get lifesaving
shots into arms.
The state did not require detailed ac-
counting of that money but did make lo-
cal governments sign contracts agree-
ing they were on the hook for paying the
state back if they were ever found to
have misspent money.
Records show, and state auditors also
found, that local governments varied in
how much detail they could provide of
their spending, with some maintaining
massive spreadsheets and others mere-
ly providing the summaries the U.S.
Treasury required about how much they
spent within certain categories.
When pressed about the state’s deci-
sion not to require more detailed ac-
counting last fall, a spokesperson for the
agency in charge of reimbursement, Liz
Merah, said “adding additional require-
ments to the submission process for lo-
cal governments would slow down a
process that is already working more ef-
ﬁciently than those of other states.”
Data obtained by the Statesman
Journal and The Register-Guard in Eu-
gene shows the breadth of spending
that the state and local governments
said were pandemic-related. These re-
lief funds went to every corner of the
Willamette Valley. Local governments
reported pandemic-related expenses
ranging from gloves to laptop bags to
Many local governments paid to keep
critical workers on their payroll using
relief funds. Lane County, for instance,
spent about $7 million to pay wages to
its public health and safety workers and
other workers whose jobs dealt with the
impacts of the pandemic, like coordi-
nating vaccine clinics.
The city of Turner spent $600 to rent
Aldersgate, a Christian youth camp, to
hold City Council meetings because its
City Hall was too small to accommodate
the spacing required for social distanc-
Local governments also distributed
protective gear to their workers, adapt-
ed them to work-from-home and tried
to solve existing problems exacerbated
by the pandemic, like patchy access to
As governments across Oregon
sought reimbursement from the state,
state auditors stepped into the deluge.
They picked out several dozen spending
choices from local governments to get a
sense of whether the spending met the
vague and changing federal guidelines.
In an October report, auditors said
they didn’t ﬁnd much reason for con-
cern, but they recommended the state
require local entities to provide more
detailed information about their spend-
ing and monitor local governments for
“reimbursement accuracy and back-up
documentation” based on risk.
State oﬃcials had sent a question-
naire to local governments asking about
their accounting systems and past fed-
eral audits. State oﬃcials planned to as-
sess how much risk there was of local
governments spending in violation of
federal guidance, but that plan did not
involve further monitoring of local gov-
ernments or their documents, auditors
said in that report.
The state’s top operations oﬃcial
said requiring more detail could delay
the reimbursement process. She also
said that between the small team han-
dling relief funds, “the currently un-
known number of high-risk subrecipi-
ents” and then-impending deadline
when the funds had to be spent, when it
came to monitoring the local govern-
ments, the agency “cannot commit to
perform a task that is not mandated.”
(The deadline for spending, at the time
late December of 2020, was later ex-
Instead, she said, the agency was fo-
cused on actions that were required —
like conducting a risk assessment of lo-
cal governments who received funds. It
intended to use those results “primarily
to educate its more than 330 subrecipi-
ents, as appropriate, of their responsi-
bilities associated with expending fed-
Continued from Page 3A
hires and existing county workers.
As of March, the county had asked for
$7.3 million in reimbursement related to
Continued from Page 3A
state’s emerging supply chain.
This proved challenging.
Marion County Fire District 1 needed
N95 masks for its paramedics and ﬁre-
ﬁghters but didn't have available extra
funds, especially since its budget was
slashed after a May 2020 operations levy
was voted down.
“Twice we asked for PPE through Mar-
ion County Emergency Management,
which was the state process, and re-
ceived small amounts of PPE,” ﬁre chief
Kyle McMann said.
As a result, the district resorted to us-
ing much of its more than $85,000 in
CARES Act funding for purchasing PPE,
one of the purposes of the funding
through the CARES Act.
McMann said the district purchased
N95 masks, face shields, gowns and
gloves with the money, the same items
the state was buying in bulk.
Tracking the money
Relief went to public payrolls
In their October letter to Coba, the
auditors said some transactions were at
higher risk of being questioned by fed-
For instance, one local government
sought reimbursement to cover 100% of
pay for its parks and recreation workers
“with no separate time tracking and lit-
tle documentation to support the duties
Generally, auditors said, a signiﬁcant
share of the relief money helped pay for
public workers’ salaries and leave costs.
Through mid-September, auditors
noticed that two-thirds of local govern-
ment reimbursements were for spend-
ing on payroll and paid sick, family and
medical leave for public workers.
When auditors wrote to Coba, the
federal guidance had already changed
several times. But at that point , it was
generally acceptable as an “administra-
tive convenience” to allow entities to
pay public health and public safety
workers without speciﬁc tracking of
hours spent on COVID-19.
Some entities were more precise
Stayton, for example, tried to track
the time that employees were spending
on pandemic-related work, said city
manager Keith Campbell.
“If I can show I was in a meeting with
outside people, the (League of Oregon
Cities), the White House did calls or oth-
er trainings, other things with groups or
organizations that were speciﬁcally
about COVID, here was a deﬁnitive time
I could track,” Campbell said. “I spend a
lot of time reading about it, but I can’t
Auditors suggested the state make
local governments submit more de-
tailed information about their spending.
Coba didn’t think that was necessary,
saying “any potential beneﬁt” didn’t
outweigh the time it would take. She
said it could slow down the process of
reimbursing local governments.
“Oregon has been able to get (relief
money) out to local governments quick-
er than other states, using a process that
invests local governments with shared
responsibility over proper use and ad-
ministration of (the relief funds),” Coba
wrote to auditors.
She acknowledged that the approach
“may not identify all local government
errors,” but said what auditors recom-
mended wouldn’t either.
Coba also disagreed with a recom-
mendation the state monitor potentially
risky spending in a more systematic
Keeping an eye on spending
February’s report won’t be the ﬁnal
time the state’s auditors examine how
federal relief funds were spent.
Every year, the state is required by
the federal Single Audit Act to probe
how it spends federal money.
Auditors’ most recent yearly review
of that spending, released in February,
included the ﬁrst few months of the
pandemic. The state’s ﬁnancial auditors
found nothing of concern with respect
to the coronavirus relief funds.
In their next review of how the state
spends federal funds, which will cover
July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021, ﬁnancial
auditors expect to examine a much larg-
er amount of COVID-related spending.