Updated: May 28, 2020
In what one Anne Arundel County official called the "weirdest" budget transfer, seven Anne Arundel County Council Members, and an additional seven county officials, met online Monday night. The April 20 legislative session met for approximately three hours, and, at 9:45 pm, unanimously passed a bill 7-0 which made $38.75 million available for PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) purchases.
"Greetings from my daughter's bedroom, also known as my home office" said Chris Trumbauer, the county executive's senior advisor for policy and communications. "I think generally, if you treat this bill as kind of the weirdest budget transfer bill you have ever seen, that would be the appropriate way to look at this."
The bill, Emergency Bill 25-20, transfers $38.75 million, primarily to the health department, to be available for the county to quickly purchase PPE if and when it becomes available on the open market. The funds may also be used to purchase items such as cleaning supplies and electronics to boost the county's tele-work capability.
Anne Arundel County was projected by the U.S. Census to have 579,000 residents in 2019. However, the county legislature reported during the session that not one resident had presented testimony or commentary on Monday's large budget transfer.
Those funds are expected to be fully reimbursable from the federal government, which, according to the county government has committed to $101 million of reimbursements to the county for COVID-19 related expenditures.
"We fully expect that everything we spent to date on COVID(-19) will be reimbursable by the Federal CARES Act money that is is coming directly to the county," Trumbauer said.
There was some disagreement as to the amount of funding that should be transferred to the health department in the bill. Trumbauer noted that $10 million had already been spent by the county on COVID-19-related needs, and more was going to be needed.
Republican District 3 Council Member Nathan Volke questioned Trumbauer, saying he had done some of his own calculations with information that was available. He estimated that the funds needed by the health department might be more in the $17 to $22 million range.
"I'm trying to understand the burn rate that you're talking about with the money," Volke said. My math over the last five weeks at $10 million being spent, doesn't quite get us to $38 million over the next 11 or so weeks," Volke said. "Any insight you can provide would be appreciated.”
Anne Arundel County has reported that some deals to procure PPE have fallen through, because the county bureaucracy was too slow to come up with the money needed. Representatives from the county executive office felt it was better to have too much money on hand than too little.
"We do need access to funds to be able to pull the trigger on those deals," Trumbauer said. "We're literally competing against a lot of other folks out there and trying to get the same equipment. So we want to make sure that we're able to do that. So I think we're hopeful that we don't spend all $38 million. We have no intention of spending all $38 million. But if the council is going to agree to put any money in this fund, we might as well put all the fund balance in there."
"It's an amazingly cutthroat purchasing environment, not just for us, for everybody," Anne Arundel County Public Health Officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman, M.D, had said earlier during the meeting.
Matt Power, a member of the county executive's procurement team, said that finding reputable firms to buy PPE from had been a time consuming process. PPE providers that were reliable sometimes required minimum purchases of 500,000 items.
"The system's just not been working the way that it normally would in a natural disaster," Power said. "It's as if the entire country got hit by blizzard, and everyone is now in the market looking for salt and trucks and everything else. As soon as the entire country was hit, everyone is looking for PPE. We are in a procurement war, so to speak with our neighboring counties, with other states with the federal government. And the ability to move quick is really, really important."
Volke said he was frustrated that firmer numbers for what funding was actually was not being identified. At one point he said "To me, this feels a lot like a $38 million slush fund." Trumbauer said he was "slightly offended" by the slush fund reference. Volke later apologized.
The council did pass three amendments to the bill, with another amendment failing to pass.
The passed amendments set up financial reporting responsibilities for the departments that would be spending the emergency funds. They also changed the wording of the bill to conform closer with the wording of the federal CARES Act.
"I think the fact that this is an extraordinary time that no other counsel has experienced before, requires that we do our due diligence, even if it's over and above what we typically do to make sure that we are spending responsibly," said said Republican District 5 Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler.
Amendment 3 was voted down 4-3. It would have required that grants that were used requiring county matching funds be approved first by the county council.
Peter Baron, director of government relations for the county executive office said Amendment 3 would slow things down, but not delay purchasing.
"I don't believe this would impede the administration from purchasing something, but it does add another step--another delay," he said.
"Right now is the time to open the spigot and buy what needs to be bought," said Democrat District 1 Councilwoman Sarah Lacy. "That's it."
The bil passed and future legislation was postponed, and scheduled to be acted on in May.
The next county council session is scheduled for May 4.
"I think we are shining a light on good government with the work that's being done currently in animal County, and we should all be very proud of that," said Democrat District 2
Councilmember Allison Pickard, who is also chairman of the county council. "I think the county executive and his team are really doing stellar, stellar work."