New Castle County Council spent nearly two hours to mostly take out one word from two parts of legislation connected to the CARES Act.
Council eventually unanimously voted to allocate $85,350,000 from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, but they had to work around a portion of County Executive Matt Meyer's proposal upon which they could not agree.
Meyer announced in April that he intended to spend part of the $322.8 million allocated to New Castle County on "Hero's Pay." That would give $10,000 to full-time first responders working in county or municipal governments and fire companies.
County Councilman Penrose Hollins raised a protest, citing comments from Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings.
"The AG has said that bonuses are expressly listed as ineligible in the U.S. Treasury guidelines. The U.S. Treasury excludes hazard pay and overtime from this ineligible category. While bonuses are prohibited, government entities are likely permitted to excess funds for overtime pay and hazard-duty pay, so long as these expenses are caused by the government entity's response to the coronavirus pandemic, and not accounted for for the last government entity's last budget act. In our view, any deviation of any existing definition of hazardous pay or overtime for the purpose of evading funding ineligibility would result in significant liability, and certain U.S. Treasury recoupment efforts. Merely calling a bonus 'hazardous pay' does not make it an eligible expenditure."
Hollins said unless Hero's Pay was taken out of the legislation, he would not vote "yes" on the emergency ordinance.
"I will not, on this first round of spending this money, knowingly know that we are going out of our way to twist what the code says, ignoring what the AG has said."
Hollins' concerns were followed up by Councilman Jea Street.
"I really think that until we go to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Delaware, and get an opinion from the feds, we're taking at least, in the initial matter, an $11 million risk. Because if we're wrong then that money doesn't qualify, and then we have to pay it back. It makes a legal challenge a fiscal challenge."
After a lengthy debate, Councilman David Carter began working with counsel to council Mike Migliore on a way to get the allocation past, playing with the wording of the bill.
The word that got council to agree was "hero's," and their amended legislation removed it from the start of the sentence that reads "pay for eligible employees; employees moved full-time/part-time to COVID-19 activities; new hires for COVID-19 specific activities such as grant management/oversight."
The word "hero's," describing pay, was also removed from "pay for eligible employees in municipalities and fire companies" in the fixed charges/grants section of the emergency ordinance.
A line was also added to expressly forbid the "Hero's Pay" money in the first round of CARES Act funding with the amendment reading:
"None of the appropriations immediately above shall be used for hazard pay, also known as Hero’s Pay."
Meyer was disappointed in council's decision.
"I've always believed that when you're in crisis, the first thing you do, is you make sure that those on the front lines are taken care of; you make sure that those on the front lines know that you have their back; council decided to go in a different direction--we have a democracy--that's our prerogative--we're moving forward," said Meyer. "We have a responsibility to the people of our county to get this money out there, to help the most vulnerable, to eradicate the virus so our community is safe and healthy again, and also to make sure that there are jobs in New Castle County."
Meyer called the "hazard pay" very important.
"I think it's very important we find ways--whether they're nurses and doctors, whether they're working as supermarket clerk or sanitation workers, police officers, paramedics, 911 operators, we need to make sure that people on the front lines know...that we've got their backs, and so we're going to continue to do that regardless of what county council thinks," said Meyer.
Money from the federal CARES Act is designed to offset costs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Castle County still has about $257.5 million left to spend, although council said they planned to allocate the money through non-emergency ordinances going forward.
WDEL asked Meyer whether he had any concerns about whether the U.S. attorney general would have an issue with his Hero's Pay proposal.
His response was a single word: "No."