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Special districts ask for special help

The swath COVID-19 shutdowns have cut through the economy has hit special districts particularly hard.

These agencies provide services not always offered by counties such as fire, water, sanitation treatment, mosquito abatement, parks and recreation, health, irrigation, etc.

Nationally the pandemic’s toll on special districts has been expensive, costing them an estimated $30.5 billion through the fiscal year 2021, according to the National Special District Association.

“It’s been a challenge and the reason districts and the (California Special Districts Association) are asking the state to share some of the $26 billion it will receive from the federal government with districts,” said Dane Wadle, senior public affairs field coordinator for CSDA’s Sierra network.

Last year when Congress passed the CARES Act it approved $150 billion in state and local government aid, of which California received $15.3 billion. The money went toward a loan and grant programs for small businesses, direct payments to eligible families and unemployment benefits, to hospital care systems, loans to corporate America, cash grants for airlines, cash for state and local governments and a moratorium on foreclosures for all federally backed home mortgages.

But the act did not specify that state and local governments should distribute any of the money to special districts.

The latest COVID-19-related bailout plan, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, includes $350 billion in aid for state and local government but little of it is directed to special districts. An effort is being made at the federal level to correct that with legislation titled the Special Districts Provide Essential Services Act, which would set aside 5% of California’s share of COVID-19 money for special districts. 

“The districts were left out of the previous efforts and impacts have been ongoing for a year and no relief by the state and with more money coming, it’s even more relevant,” noted Wadle, saying that some districts have been trying to cope with the shutdowns by deferring maintenance, furloughing staff or using their reserves.

“We haven’t received anything from any of the COVID-related funding programs,” said Wadle. “We believe the state has revenues it can share and is allowed to do so by the programs passed by the feds.”

Wadle noted the costs have been both in losses of revenue as well as the expense of complying with the many COVID-related mandates.

Local examples he cited — $663,000 in lost service fees for the Cameron Park Community Service District; $1.4 million in lost revenue for the El Dorado Hills CSD along with having to spend $127,000 for additional security, sanitation measures, equipment upgrades like a filter for the wading pool and paying rent on a facility it can’t use because of COVID-19 restrictions; and $90,000 in lost revenue for the Georgetown Divide Recreation District.

Water districts have suffered as well with the Grizzly Flats Community Services District out $28,000 because of not being able to collect penalties and delinquencies on nonpayment. The Georgetown Divide Public Utility District had to include an extra $30,000 in its budget this year for office upgrades — a plastic divider at the customer counter to protect staff and technology upgrades so people can work from home. The South Lake Tahoe Public Utility District adopted a rate-relief plan that provided a 50% credit in sewer bills for any customer negatively impacted by COVID-19 and waived late fees. This relief package lasted for three quarters and reduced the district’s revenues by approximately $570,000.  

The El Dorado Irrigation District was particularly hard hit with the financial toll from COVID-19 put at $967,000 — $215,000 for paid administrative leave to replace employee wages during COVID-19 stay-at-home orders; $132,000 in wage replacement to employees to provide emergency paid sick leave as outlined under the Federal CARES Act; $242,000 in enhanced paid time off to assist employees during COVID-19; $270,000 in health insurance benefits to employees to mitigate interruption of medical care during the pandemic; and $108,000 for personal protective equipment.

While Wadle said nothing has been decided as of yet regarding any legislative relief, discussions with legislators continue.

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