SACRAMENTO – Sacramento County officials have found themselves in defense mode after it appears they have used the bulk of the federal money they have received to respond to the coronavirus pandemic for Corrections expenses.

The Sacramento OBSERVER has obtained documents that point to County officials spending more than 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. According to the documents, nearly $133 million was 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 $777,761.96 to “public health,” and $1.1 million to “primary health.” The expenditures appear to have been approved by County Executive Navdeep S. Gill. The OBSERVER reached out to Deputy County Executive Bruce Wagstaff, Gill’s second in command, however he could not be reached for comment.

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.”

On Friday, the Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance issued a statement that the County used CARES revenue to “avoid drastic cuts in staffing and critical services.” According to the statement, the pandemic has resulted in the County receiving “approximately $170 million less in discretionary funding in the 19/20 and 20/21 fiscal years.” Because less money would mean a reduction in services, the money was used to stave off that occurrence, seemingly in violation of federal guidelines.

According to the leaked documents, County health officials requested $90 million for public health costs related to COVID-19, but appears to have only received a small fraction of that amount. 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. 

The local Black community has been vocal about its concerns about how the CARES money was being spent. Across the nation, African Americans have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with education and access — to testing and healthcare in general — being contributing factors. 

Sierra Health Foundation CEO Chet Hewitt said using money obtained for a public health emergency for any other purpose “seems grossly malfeasant.” Hewitt, who headed the Human Services Department in Alameda from November 2001 to September 2007, is among area leaders who are a part of the Sacramento African American COVID-19 Outreach Coalition. The group formed in April to ensure access, continued dialogue and accountability during the pandemic. Hewitt says the group has been trying unsuccessfully to get an answer about the CARES budget for some time now.

Guidance from the U.S. Treasury for the use of the Coronavirus Relief Fund states that “funding can be used to meet payroll expenses for public safety, public health, health care, human services, and similar employees whose services are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

Hewitt says there is no doubt that there are legitimate COVID-19-related expenses covered by the Corrections allocations, pointing to how the community has demanded protections for people incarcerated at County jail facilities. Expenses such as personal protection equipment for Sheriff’s deputies and other personnel, would also be understandable, he said. 

“I’m not suggesting that there’s no cost, because as we know, there are costs for everybody everywhere, but we also know that this money is designed to avert a public health crisis due to COVID-19 community transmission — the spread across communities — and it supports the County’s ability to meet the needs of its citizens. This shows that the money is really being spent to support the public system, not the public,” Hewitt said. 

Phil Serna, Chair of the County Board of Supervisors, told The OBSERVER that County officials will make a report to the Board about the expenditures at a yet-to-be-determined time on Tuesday, August 11. It was unclear at press time if that would happen during the Board’s regularly scheduled 9:30 a.m. virtual meeting or during a separate session.

“The public deserves to know how and why we’ve intentionally protected the general fund and ensured county services continue uninterrupted,” Serna said in a statement to The OBSERVER. 

“To this end, I fully expect the county executive and his team to clearly explain for the board and our constituents the rationale supporting utilization of federal CARES Act resources,” he continued. 

Hewitt says he and others want to hear County officials’ justification for a budget decision he calls an “embarrassment” if true.

“How could you even conceive of producing a budget like this given all that’s happening around us?” he asked. “If these numbers are accurate, this is indefensible.”

By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer