The spread of the coronavirus and the response to it are almost unique among modern challenges in putting a burden on all the people of Earth. All governments at all levels too are already or will be strained by increased costs and reduced revenue.
The federal government quickly created the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and started sending billions in pandemic aid to the states. Major population centers got a share of this CARES funding directly, but funding for the rest was rolled into the state grants and left to the states to distribute.
New Jersey state government, itself in a severe bind overseeing the nation’s No. 2 COVID-19 hotspot, hasn’t shared its $3.4 billion in CARES aid with local governments. Last week the N.J. Association of Counties urged Gov. Phil Murphy to reimburse them for their pandemic-related expenses and he should do so soon.
Direct federal aid went to population centers of 500,000 or more, which left out a dozen of New Jersey’s 21 counties — including Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland.
Just because these 12 counties are smaller doesn’t mean they didn’t incur COVID costs too, which so far are being borne entirely by local taxpayers.
County governments’ response to the crisis included operating virus testing centers, buying and distributing personal protective equipment, hiring health care workers, addressing the risks in their correctional facilities and conducting elections safely.
Their situation is reminiscent of the plight of New Jersey’s smaller hospitals. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded $1.7 billion to 53 larger hospitals in the state that had provided inpatient care for 100 or more COVID-19 patients by April 10.
But the coronavirus kept spreading and smaller hospitals incurred costs from it. They also suffered massive losses from Gov. Murphy’s months-long postponement of nonessential surgeries and other treatments. Shore Medical Center and Cape Regional Medical Center have been working through congressional representatives to get some help, so far in vain.
Pennsylvania offers an example of appropriate sharing of aid in this crisis.
Seven of its counties got CARES funds directly from the federal government while 60 were left waiting. By early June, Pennsylvania sent $625 million of its nearly $4 billion in federal aid to the remaining counties.
The N.J. Association of Counties said the state treasurer has allocated $250 million from its Coronavirus Relief Fund under CARES to a Local Government Relief Fund administered by the state Department of Community Affairs. But Murphy and the DCA have yet to release any of those funds to the dozen smaller counties.
The Murphy administration shouldn’t keep waiting to see if it gets more money from the federal government before passing along the relief. The aid is needed now and should be shared now. If New Jersey gets additional federal aid, the state can be more generous with local governments then.