Governor hopes new guidelines will help state, counties, cities with funds

(AP file photo) Gov. Jim Justice expects Congress by Monday to issue guidelines that will expand the ways that states may spend $1.25 billion in coronavirus relief funding, he said Thursday.

Gov. Jim Justice expects Congress by Monday to issue guidelines that will expand the ways that states may spend $1.25 billion in coronavirus relief funding, he said in an interview with The Register-Herald.

Justice is hoping that the federal funding will backfill a significant loss of state revenue collections, which were $192 million below what state budget officials had projected for April.

If the state's COVID-19 response continues without federal support, West Virginia could face a $500 million shortfall for the fiscal year and top $3.6 billion through fiscal year 2022, data from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy shows.

Justice told The Register-Herald in the Thursday evening interview that he anticipates new guidelines from federal lawmakers will allow states, counties and cities to apply for funding that offsets pandemic-related losses to date.

His administration is waiting to receive those guidelines and will then notify state, county and city officials of specific requirements for funding requests.

"We're just checking every glitch that may be out there," the governor said. "We may work that out over the weekend.

"It's going to come out (Friday) or Monday or over the weekend, but we're real close."

Raleigh County Administrator Jeff Miller reported in April that the county anticipates a five percent revenue drop, mainly in the form of ad valorem taxes. Such taxes are based on the assessed value of an item, such as real estate or personal property.

Beckley City Treasurer Billie Trump said in April that the COVID-related revenue impact to the city began in February, with revenue collections being the lowest in four years.

Trump reported the drop from last year was over $600,000. The pattern continued in March, with revenue being the lowest in four years, dropping by nearly $200,000 from the previous year. 

Justice said state officials plan to meet with city and county government representatives to offer additional information on how to apply, once Congress reaches a decision on the anticipated new guidelines.

Justice said current guidelines are too restrictive. He is hoping that the new guidelines will offer more leniency to city, county and state officials who have suffered revenue loss due to COVID-19.

"Right now, the scope of monies is so restrictive, just directly related to COVID-19 expenses, that if we're held to just the guidelines, where they're at right now, the amount of dollars that need to go out will only be a fraction," he explained.

"I think what's going to happen is, I think we're going to be able to significantly backfill loss of revenue, which will be very beneficial to counties, cities and the state.

"I believe West Virginia's going to be able to backfill some of the revenue and do a lot more things that are significantly more beneficial to the counties and the cites and the states than we know right now," he emphasized. "So we're waiting on those additional guidelines.

"I'm very confident those will be broadening (and will) enable us to bring more monies to the counties, more monies to the cities and more monies to the state.

"But we just don't have them, yet."

It was unclear Thursday evening when cities and counties will receive the funding, once they have applied, the governor said.

During a discussion on support for the homeless on Thursday, Beckley Mayor Rob Rappold reported that the city has not yet received a portion of the $1.25 billion in federal dollars. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has twice criticized Justice for not immediately spending the funds on COVID-19 testing, sanitation, personal protection equipment (PPE) and support for the homeless, who may transmit COVID-19 because they do not have a shelter in which to quarantine if they are ill and not in a hospital.

Democratic members of the state House of Delegates sent Justice a letter this week requesting a portion of the $1.25 billion be allocated to the West Virginia Small Business Emergency Relief Fund, MetroNews reported.

Various social, political and professional organizations had sent a letter to the Justice administration earlier, asking if those with chronic health issues or those who live with someone in a vulnerable category may still claim unemployment. Justice had said the letter was "playing politics" during a press conference on Friday.

“From my standpoint, that preaching hurts us,” Justice said. “The more we just politicize this right here, the more it will hurt.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell suggested on a talk show last month that states could declare bankruptcy during the coronavirus pandemic — an option that is available to municipalities but not to states.

The Senate majority leader said he would rather let state governments declare bankruptcy than receive more federal funding and suggested that Republicans should oppose additional aid for state and local governments in future coronavirus relief bills.

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