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County gets federal boost for virus costs

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The federal government has deposited nearly $32 million in Bernalillo County’s account to cover coronavirus-related costs – about 20 times more than the county has spent so far.

The money is part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act relief package passed last month that included direct assistance to local governments with at least 500,000 people.

The money is intended for COVID-19-related costs incurred from March through December.

The county has recorded about $1.5 million worth as of last week.

While officials are still assessing bills to see what else might count, the county’s top finance official said she does not expect to use the entire $31.8 million allocation.

“No, I don’t, because it is still very restrictive,” said Shirley Ragin, deputy county manager for finance.

Unspent funds will go back to the federal government, she added.

Allowable expenses include facility disinfection, personal protective equipment purchases and measures taken to limit the virus’ spread at jails, according to guidance published last week on the federal Treasury Department’s website. Funds also can go toward payroll for public safety, human services and other employees if their work is focused on addressing COVID-19.

Other medical and public health costs also qualify, though the county cannot include it for costs already in its budget.

Ragin told the Bernalillo County Commission during its Tuesday meeting that there are also opportunities to use the money to help small businesses, but the county needs to ensure it has the right processes in place that meet applicable federal standards.

Commission Chairman Lonnie Talbert urged county staff to move fast given the urgent need.

“I’m telling you we’ll watch bankruptcies galore in Bernalillo County if we don’t do that quickly,” he said.

Push to reduce voting sites

Coronavirus’ impact on Bernalillo County is extending to elections.

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, County Clerk Linda Stover wants to reduce the number of in-person voting sites for the state’s June 2 primary election.

The clerk is petitioning the state District Court in Albuquerque to eliminate eight of the previously approved 69 election day voting convenience centers around the county, leaving only the minimum required by law. The reduction is necessary due “to the serious health risks posed to voters and poll workers” by COVID-19, the petition states.

The clerk also intends to offer 16 early voting options compared to the 21 originally planned.

Stover has been actively advocating for voters to cast their ballots by mail instead. As of Tuesday, her office had already processed nearly 25,000 absentee ballot applications from the county’s 321,781 eligible primary voters.

The clerk’s office will begin mailing absentee ballots May 5 but voters have until May 28 to apply.

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