SACRAMENTO – Local residents waited on hold for hours Tuesday to call in to the County Board of Supervisors meeting and express outrage over news that officials gave the bulk of money they received from the federal government to respond to the coronavirus pandemic to the sheriff’s department for salaries.

Sacramento County health officials Dr. Peter Beilensen, right, and Dr. Olivia Kasirye confer during Tuesday’s County Board of Supervisors meeting. (Photo by Russell Steiger, Jr.)

County Executive Navdeep S. Gill, his second in command Bruce Wagstaff, Deputy County Executive for Social Services, and Britt Ferguson, the County’s Chief Financial Officer, made a presentation to the five County Supervisors, justifying “swapping” the money because it “helped stabilize the budget” and will “avoid cuts to County services” in the current fiscal year.

As first reported by The Sacramento OBSERVER “Sacramento County’s Use Of COVID-19 CARES Funds Questioned, 90 percent of its to-date allocations from the $181 million it received from the federal government through its Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to cover Corrections costs. Nearly $133 million has been used for costs including salaries and benefits for the Sheriff’s and probation departments, and only 2.4 percent of CARES Act funding has gone to human services — including just $777,761.96 to “public health,” and $1.1 million to “primary health.”
The U.S. Treasury says the CARES Act funding is only to be used by local entities to cover “necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to COVID-19.”

During the heated Board meeting, supervisors asked for clarification on how money was spent on salaries for the Sheriff’s and probation departments and the public defender’s office. Board chair Phil Serna, Patrick Kennedy and Don Notolli were the most vocal, stating that they’d been waiting for some time now for answers on how the money had been spent.

According to the U.S. Treasury, coronavirus relief fund payments may be used to cover payroll or benefits expenses of public employees. “However, this is limited to employees whose work duties are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

Gill and Ferguson say they interpreted another line in the federal guidance as permission to submit the payroll expenditures as they did. The line reads, “A state, territorial, local or tribal government may presume that payroll costs for public health and public safety employees are payments for services that are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

Kennedy said that part of the policy appears to be “badly written.”
In explaining the questionable expenditures he approved, Gill said he told County departments that in addressing the pandemic, that they could get “whatever they needed” and told them the County committee would worry about how to pay for it later.

Many are questioning what any of the payroll expenses had to do with COVID-19 response.

\At one point in the meeting Gill seemed to say that the committee said the money was used in that manner to order to meet a “pretty tight” deadline to the Treasury in reporting how the money has been spent thus far.

“Not one of those departments on that list, not one extra cent went in there,” Gill said.

“All that did was free up General Fund dollars for us to bring in and capture. That’s all we did with that,” he continued. “They never saw it. Maybe it’s a bad analogy, but it would be like us putting money into your bank account at 11:59 and at midnight we came and swept it.”

“They couldn’t have spent it even if they wanted to spend it,” Ferguson added.

At which time Serna asked, “Are you telling me we took CARES money and put it into the Sheriff’s budget, $104 million, and then took it out, $104 million?”

Gill and Ferguson replied in unison, “Basically.”

Callers referred to the money move as a “bait and switch” and “three card monte.” Many wanted to know what COVID-19 needs have gone unmet because the money was “spent” in that manner.

Gill repeatedly said “anything (departments) asked for they got,” even calling Dr. Peter Beilensen, the County Health Director, up to the podium to attest to that. Dr. Beilensen was there speaking earlier on a separate agenda item, seeking $13.5 million in funds for COVID-19 testing.

Dr. Olivia Kasirye, the County’s Public Health Officer, contradicted Gill’s claim.

“We do not have everything we need right now,” Dr. Kasirye said.

As shown in documents obtained by The OBSERVER, Dr. Kasirye originally requested $90 million for public health costs related to COVID-19. Needs included laboratory operations support, personal protective equipment, two vehicles for pop-up COVID-19 testing, a strike team that would conduct mass testing in congregate settings like nursing homes and other areas where outbreaks have occurred; paying for eight laboratory technicians and four microbiologists needed to process tests including on evenings and weekends to meet the demand; paying for four epidemiologists to conduct data analysis and monitor vulnerable populations; and paying for four health educators to help with community outreach efforts.

Dr. Kasirye told the Board she wanted “to clear up a few things.”

She said the process for the first request from Gill’s committee to submit what their needs were was “unclear.”

“We were under the impression that we could only submit a cap of $1.8 million, so we did,” she said.

A portion of that — $125,000, for overtime hours — was not funded, she says, because she was told it would qualify for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), although that hasn’t happened. Gill and Ferguson said they focused their spending on items that couldn’t be funded through other available avenues, like FEMA.

“After that, Dr. Belienson came back to me and said we could resubmit for more. He asked me to put together a budget for everything we needed.

That’s where the $90 million is coming from,” Dr. Kasirye shared.

The $90 million, she says, would cover needs for an extended period — as County health officials predict it will take at least another year to get through the pandemic. Because CARES Act money only covers expenses through December 31, Dr. Kasirye and her team took out some of the items off their list and reduced their request to $40 million. That proposal, she said, was submitted in July, at which time, they were told by the committee that they weren’t accepting any more requests at that time.

They’re now whittling down a request to some $20 million to get the full balance of what’s left in the coffers. Staff and volunteers are working to meet the demands of fighting the continued virus and are exhausted and resources are stretched to the limit. They also need money, she says, to begin preparing to open immunization clinics when a vaccine is made available. Funds for community outreach to vulnerable populations had previously been taken out of the request to lower the amount.

Among those phoning in to the meeting was Dr. Flojaune Cofer, a local epidemiologist and senior director of policy for Public Health Advocates. Dr. Cofer didn’t mince words, calling Gill out as a liar.

“To direct them to ask for less money and then say they were given what they asked for is completely and utterly unconscionable and it is unethical,” Dr. Cofer said to Board members.

“You really need to question the confidence that you have in your County executive if he’s going to come and lie directly to your face about what has happened. Public health clearly needs more money. We are in the middle of a pandemic and it’s unacceptable to say several million dollars going to public health is adequate. We know it is not,” she continued.

All of this comes at a time when many in the community are calling for the defunding of law enforcement and a greater investment in better treatment for African Americans and other people of color. An unidentified caller said giving CARES Act money to the sheriff’s department makes the Board of Supervisors a party to racist behaviors.

“Every time they shoot a guy that was running away or didn’t have a weapon, you are complicit in that,” the caller accused. “Every time they harass somebody because of their race or because they live in the poor part of town, you are complicit. Every time they beat up the wrong suspect because someone called in and gave a description and police don’t see differences between a race of people other than their own, you are complicit,” he continued.

Malaki Seku-Amen, founder of the California Urban Partnership also called in, as part of a CARES Act For The People Coalition.

“We’re demanding transparency, transparency, transparency,” Amen said.
“It’s shocking that we’re looking at funds for public safety or law enforcement instead of public health and economic recovery urgency being addressed,” he said. “We keep asking what happened to the money and we keep hearing that if a county health official asked for something, they got it.

Well, there is reason to believe that not only did they not get what they needed, but we also know that the public has not been engaged in terms of what is needed.”

Serna says he now wants some “forensic accounting” of the money already allocated and greater oversight of the remaining CARES Act spending.

Callers like local activist Kula Koenig wondered why they conceded authority in the first place.

“You’re Nav Gill’s boss, so why are you not asking him?” Ms. Koenig asked.

By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer