The federal Covid-19 relief bill is going to pour an unprecedented amount of money into West Virginia counties, cities and small communities. Senator Joe Manchin, who voted for the bill has released a fact sheet detailing how $677 million will be divided.
All 55 counties will receive money, with amounts ranging from $1.13 million to Wirt County, the state’s smallest, to $34.55 million to the largest county, Kanawha.
Over 230 cities, towns and small municipalities are in line for cash. The amounts range from $60,000 to the tiny Mason County community of Leon to $44.84 million for Huntington.
Manchin supported decentralizing the distribution, with a large chunk of the money going directly to the communities rather than to the State Capitol to be allocated from Charleston. The funds are targeted for expenses related to the pandemic and long-term infrastructure projects.
That is a monumental cash drop on local governments that often struggle to provide basic services, much less invest in necessary improvements. However, infusing that much money that fast also raises the probability of waste, fraud and abuse.
Remember “Routergate?” A legislative audit found that West Virginia wasted between $8 million and $15 million in federal stimulus money buying oversized Internet routers to place in libraries and schools.
Remember Richwood? The community squandered $3 million in flood relief. Chris Drennen, the former Mayor of Richwood, is under indictment on charges of illegally paying herself and family members.
Unfortunately, the Richwood case is not unique. The State Auditor’s office is currently investigating approximately 40 cases where there are allegations of misuse of public funds.
The billions flowing to towns and counties across the country will also generate a cottage industry of “consultants.” Communities should be wary of self-proclaimed “experts” who will promise mayors and town councils that they will “take care of everything.”
Senator Shelley Moore Capito is worried some of these small communities do not have the expertise or the manpower to manage all that federal money. “I think the accountability issue is very difficult, and it’s hard for our small municipalities—they don’t have a bunch of CPAs and lawyers running around being able to make sure they are crossing every ‘t’ and dotting every ‘i.’
“We’re going to end up with a lot of waste here,” she said.
West Virginia Auditor J.B. McCuskey told me his office is going to try to prevent that from happening. He said his office will use “state of the art accounting technology to ensure that all this money is spent transparently.”
McCuskey said his greatest fear is “we will find ourselves 10 years down the road asking, ‘where did all the money go’?”
Our history tells us that is a legitimate fear.