Montgomery County is slated to get nearly $204 million in direct funding from the coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress earlier in March, which officials say will provide a much-needed cushion to the county’s budget as it seeks to put Maryland’s largest county on a path to post-pandemic financial recovery.
Overall, the state of Maryland received just under $4 billion in direct funding in the relief bill, with about $1.2 billion total set aside for the state’s nearly two dozen county governments, according to a summary from the office of Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who spoke to reporters during a media briefing Monday.
Details on what the county funding will support are still spare, but Van Hollen, and County Council President Tom Hucker, who hosted the briefing, are pledging transparency.
Van Hollen said flexibility in how the funding is allocated is important.
“These funds need to be distributed in a way that helps the communities that have been hardest hit … One of the reasons though that we provided these funds directly to county governments and directly to municipal governments and did not have all of them going to the state government was because we wanted to provide the county with the flexibility to use the funds where they think are most needed, and that’s to help fill the gaps,” the senator said.
Van Hollen said there are “guard rails” in place to make sure the funds are spent responsibly, pointing to the oversight commission created under last year’s CARES Act coronavirus relief bill and President Joe Biden’s pick of Gene Sperling with leading oversight in the executive branch.
Of the total amount of direct funding, Montgomery County will receive about half within 90 days, Van Hollen said. Local officials will have to provide an accounting for funds that are spent to receive the second half of the funding next year, he added.
Hucker, who hosted the briefing, said the county would also track funding on the county’s budget website.
“I’ll certainly make sure that it’s very clear on our county … budget website, how the federal dollars were spent which parts of the county budget were paid for by those federal dollars,” Hucker said.
Separate from the $203.7 million for the county, independent municipalities in the county, such as the cities of Gaithersburg, Rockville, Takoma Park and Chevy Chase, are set to receive a total of $100 million in federal funding, Hucker said.
The $204 million in direct federal relief for the county was first noted in the nearly $6 billion operating budget introduced by County Executive Marc Elrich last week.
The budget, which doesn’t include a property tax increase and includes full funding for schools, “allowed us to breathe a real sigh of relief after this year of unanticipated challenge and it’s largely due” to the federal relief, Hucker said.
For example, the federal funds will help improve the county’s revenue outlook, officials say, increasing the county’s reserves to 9.6%, which Hucker said was key to maintaining the county’s pristine AAA bond rating.
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8,000 vaccine doses for Montgomery County
Montgomery County officials on Monday also discussed the county’s vaccination efforts.
In anticipation of the statewide eligibility guidelines expanding Tuesday to include everyone 60 and older, the Maryland Department of Health is increasing the COVID-19 vaccine doses sent to county health departments across the state.
The Montgomery County Health Department this week is receiving 8,000 first doses — the highest number in the state for a health department. That’s up from the 6,600 the department received last week and nearly double the 4,500 weekly doses earlier this month.
But Hucker said it’s still not enough for the county, which is home to more than 1 million people and is one of the most diverse in the state.
“That’s still not enough, given our population and the number of eligible residents …. We still need to receive our fair share of doses on a per capita basis, but it’s definitely better than the 4,500 we had been receiving per week until recently,” Hucker said of the increase.
Under the new boost in doses, neighboring Prince George’s County will go from 4,200 guaranteed weekly doses to 6,900.
Dr. Raymond Crowel, the head of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the county is still working its way through earlier phases of the vaccine rollout, which includes some essential workers and those 65 and older.
“As we get more doses, we’ll speed that process along and we’ll move effortlessly into the next few tiers that the governor has opened up,” he said.
The county is also still moving forward with a plan for a large-scale mass vaccination site at the Germantown campus of Montgomery College, which is slated to open next week, Crowel said. To start with, the site will be entirely county-run, with the ability to administer 1,300 to 1,500 shots a day.
It’s expected that the Germantown vaccine site will eventually become a state-supported mass vaccination site run in partnership with the county. Gov. Larry Hogan said an announcement last week by county officials was premature but suggested an announcement from his office could come this week.
In part, the move to Germantown is necessary because the county has to relocate two existing vaccine clinics — one at Richard Montgomery High School and one at Quince Orchard High School — as students return to classrooms.
Overall, more than 270,000 Montgomery County residents have received at least one vaccine — which is about a quarter of the county’s population. About 140,000 residents are fully vaccinated.
Earlier this month, Gov. Larry Hogan lifted state coronavirus capacity limits, and Montgomery County also acted to ease some local restrictions, but Crowel said the county is “proceeding with caution.”
He pointed to recent statewide data that appear to show coronavirus cases ticking upward. However, Montgomery County’s data indicates a continued decline in cases, with new daily cases on some days staying below 100.
“Our rates are good, in part because the council and the county executive and public health officer have maintained some restrictions in place for an extended period of time,” Crowel said. “And we obviously want them to stay good and go in the positive direction. We are still not out of the woods yet.”
Crowel pointed to new data crunched by The New York Times that aims to show the comparative risk of COVID-19 infection. The map shows Montgomery County shaded in orange, indicating high risk of transmission, surrounded by a sea of red, indicating continued high risk.
“You get a sense of where we are as an island that is relatively safe in an area where there is very high risk for transmission of the disease.”
COVID case tracker from @nytimes shows how we are standing out in the #DMV with our case counts. Our smart restriction decisions are showing results especially as cases uptick around state. Thx to our residents & businesses for keeping each other safe. https://t.co/K8Jfc5NLNc pic.twitter.com/xC4iUJxpIQ
— County Exec Marc Elrich (@MontCoExec) March 22, 2021