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As thousands fall behind on bills, Greenville County grapples with spending CARES funds

Greenville County CARES Act

Greenville County received $91 million in aid from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. 

Thousands of Greenville County residents have fallen behind on utility bills. Hundreds more can't pay their rent or mortgage.

Job losses continue to mount and unemployment benefits are drying up. Nonprofit organizations say they've run out of money to help.

More than 8,500 customers in Greenville County alone have fallen behind on utility bills — owing $4 million total — and another 1,300 have told the area's United Way that they can't pay their rent. Duke Energy, the Upstate's largest electricity provider, began this month to disconnect customers who are at least two months behind and aren't making payments to catch up.

As winter's chill approaches, the public health and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus shows no signs of easing.

Amid it all, Greenville County has faced increasing pressure to distribute aid from a treasure trove of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money. No other county government in South Carolina received CARES funds.

The county began to shift the money this month, allocating $16 million to meet more community health needs. Of that, $4 million has been distributed, said Bob Mihalic, Greenville County spokesman.

It sent $3 million to Bon Secours St. Francis Health System to help pay for ICU beds, pharmacy supplies, coronavirus testing, air scrubbers and other expenses, he said.

Livewell Greenville got nearly $480,000 for food deserts, food scarcity and public health programs. Unity Health on Main received $106,000 for food services and mental health programs. Project Hope received $56,000 for a new bus to keep children socially distanced. Greenville Free Medical Clinic received $28,000 for testing, cleaning and personal protective equipment. Compass of the Carolinas received $6,100 for PPE.

A number of requests are pending approval, including more assistance to cover utility and rent payments. 

There's still $60 million more to be spent, which must happen by the end of this year or the money reverts to the federal treasury. If Congress doesn't extend the deadline, $30 million could be left unspent.

Difficulty in the details

The problem with disbursement, the county says, is uncertainty about how the federal government allows the money to be used.

This summer, the county received $91 million to allocate to various coronavirus-related expenses, including businesses, nonprofits, public health, housing authorities, county agencies and special-purpose districts.

Initially, the county set aside $75 million for businesses to claim. But because the money was limited to $5,000 or $10,000 grants to repay actual expenses, and couldn’t be used to replace lost revenue or pay employees, demand has been lower than anticipated.

From the outset, county staff has come under pressure to redistribute its share of funding to get it into the hands of community health groups, housing authorities and nonprofit organizations.

But they have been wary. If misspent, the county would be on the hook to repay the federal government.

“People are saying that we’re hoarding that money, but that’s not true,” County Council Chairman Butch Kirven said. “We’ve got accountability requirements.”

Businesses and organizations who can use the money must apply, he said. The county can’t simply give it out, but they are trying to build flexibility into disbursements, he said.

“We don’t want to have to give a bunch of it back to Washington,” he said.

County officials are hoping Congress will extend the timeline of when the funds must be spent.  

All of the bills proposed in Congress for further coronavirus stimulus packages have included an extension to spend the original money, County Administrator Joe Kernell said.

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But with President Donald Trump's administration and Congressional leaders at an impasse on new relief, the deadline is approaching with no agreement yet.

“There’s a good possibility we won’t have to have it all spent by then, if Congress gets it together and does another round of funding,” Kernell said.

The county redevelopment authority has taken on a new role during the pandemic, acting as facilitator for $2 million in county CARES Act funds and $3 million in federal CARES Act funds it received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said John Castile, GCRA’s executive director.

That money is designated for utility and rent or mortgage assistance and other coronavirus needs, and GCRA is disbursing it to nonprofits providing help, Castile said. Between $500,000 and $600,000 has been spent so far.

How to help nonprofits?

Many nonprofits, whose budgets have been pushed to the brink as revenue streams dried up and demands increased during the pandemic, are on shaky financial footing. Nearly 30 percent said they couldn’t make it to the end of the year without further financial help, according to a recent survey of local nonprofits.

The CARES Act funds would seemingly bandage that wound, but the funds can’t be used to replace lost revenue, Kernell said.

He said the county is continuing to evaluate and approve proposals from organizations with plans to use that money for programs or expenses. Among those proposals is one to provide further help for people in the community who have been affected by layoffs or other coronavirus issues and have fallen behind on rent and utilities, Kernell said.

“Apparently that has become more of an issue with people being laid off from jobs and making utility payments along with housing payments,” he said.

The county is working with the United Way and the Greenville County Redevelopment Authority on a proposal now, Kernell said. But they must first determine who qualifies under the limits the government set on spending the money.

As the county considers more proposals, the United Way of Greenville County has seen a shift in what people on the brink need to survive, said Meghan Barp, the organization's executive director. Early on, residents mostly were seeking help with food, but there’s been a sharp uptick in requests for help with utilities and rent, Barp said.

Locally, the United Way has raised more than $1.4 million for a coronavirus relief fund and has already spent half, she said. Some of the remainder will be dedicated to rent and utilities, but she said they need more collaboration to truly meet the current needs and those expected in the coming months.

Barp said she hasn’t been shy about telling people to call their county council members to urge them to distribute more of the CARES Act money.

“We’re going to need support from the county or others to help cover those expenses,” she said.

What United Way is seeing now is most callers for assistance have never used their services before, she said. It’s people sinking toward poverty because of lost wages, and many don’t have access to internet or reliable transportation to even drive to fill out paperwork or seek services.

“We are truly working to make it easier for people or to make sure their power doesn’t get shut off or their water or they get evicted, quite frankly,” she said. “People are really struggling and we’re doing everything we can to create those solutions.”

Resuming disconnections

Starting this month, Duke Energy resumed its normal billing practices and will shut off power for customers who are two or more months behind on payments, about 12,000 of Duke’s 610,000 customers across the Carolinas, said Ryan Mosier, Duke Energy spokesman.

The utility will allow customers to set up extended payments plans and has partnered with United Way of Greenville County to connect customers with further assistance, he said. Those in need of help can call United Way at 211 or visit SC211.org for assistance.

Mosier said the company has proactively contacted those more than a month behind on bills to try to provide assistance and will notify any customers ahead of time if their electricity will be disconnected and the date it would be cut off.

“Our team is prepared to support customers through these challenging times and provide manageable solutions so customers can keep their lights on,” he said.

Follow Nathaniel Cary on Twitter at @nathanielcary

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