County to spend COVID-19 aid to help homeless, businesses

The San Diego County Administration Center.
The San Diego County Administration Center.
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego County will spend about half its federal COVID-19 rescue funds on the costs of handling the pandemic, the Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday, June 8, with the rest going to such items as homeless assistance, small business aid and hazard pay for essential county workers.

At its regular meeting the board considered a dozen spending categories for the $647.5 million it will receive from the American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion federal relief bill passed in March.

Of the federal aid, $232.5 million will cover previous and ongoing costs of COVID-19 response, including testing, tracing, treating and vaccination efforts. The board set aside another $75 million for future pandemic expenses.

Homeless assistance, the second largest spending category at $85 million, received broad support and a unanimous vote from the five supervisors. That effort will include $70 million for housing, shelter and new facilities; $10 million for housing vouchers and rent subsidies, and $5 million for LGBTQ housing and services, according to the staff report.

The board also agreed on $56 million for small business assistance, boosting spending from the original plan of $50 million. It will include $33 million for small business stimulus programs — up from the original proposal of $31 million.

It also sets aside $7.5 million to waive safety permit fees for restaurants and $1.5 million to waive special event fees, recognizing that months of closures and lockdown orders struck a blow to dining and entertainment businesses.

Another $5 million will go to arts and cultural activities and organizations, and $5 million will help with rental assistance for small landlords.

Board members unanimously voted to spend $32 million on mental health services — up from an original plan for $30 million — and $20 million for food assistance programs, which would include community gardens and other food sustainability measures.

They also approved $16 million for childcare services, an increase over the original $10 million they considered. The money will cover childcare grants and vouchers and training programs to increase San Diego’s childcare workforce.

The board split on whether to approve $36 million in hazard pay for essential county workers whose jobs require them to interact in person with the public. Two Republican members cast doubt on the plan, but the three Democratic supervisors supported it.

Supervisor Joel Anderson opposed the plan for hazard pay, saying that his district includes many working poor who lost income during the pandemic and do not receive hazard pay or even basic benefits such as health insurance.

“I can’t, in good conscience, give COVID bonuses to those who never lost a paycheck and have guaranteed retirement and healthcare,” he said.

Supervisor Jim Desmond said he shared Anderson’s objections to hazard pay but voted in favor of it, noting that the measure would pass even without his support and that most of it will go to the Sheriff’s department and probation.

Speakers who called in during more than two hours of public comment included county workers who described the risks they took interacting with the public.

Some employees working in foster care or senior services described visiting clients at homes where other household members were sick with the virus. The employees said they were fearful of infecting their own families or missed family events because they had been exposed to COVID-19. Many said they felt those efforts warranted extra compensation.

In addition to hazard pay for essential workers, the board also voted to add $6 million from its general fund to reimburse telework expenses of county employees working remotely.

The supervisors also differed on priorities for spending $10 million for youth and seniors.

Although they agreed on free transportation services for younger and elderly San Diegans, Desmond’s proposal to increase waivers for youth sports and camps from $2 million to $10 million did not win support from the other supervisors.

The board also voted in favor of spending $15 million for legal services and counseling for tenants facing eviction and small landlords with fewer than five units who need assistance navigating rental assistance programs.

The federal aid also will include $32 million for infrastructure projects, such as stormwater improvements, broadband expansion, fire districts and electric vehicle infrastructure. Supervisors whittled that down from a proposed $46 million, with money pulled from countywide broadband upgrades and stormwater projects to add to other spending priorities.

— Deborah Sullivan-Brennan is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune