Railing against Gov. Doug Ducey, the Pinal County Board of Supervisors is preparing a lawsuit against the federal government.[pull_quote_right]Right now our governor is systematically choosing to exclude 25% of our entire state’s population and effectively saying, ‘You don’t matter.’[/pull_quote_right]
At issue is the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s wording in its written guidance for distributing Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds. By using the word “may” instead of “shall,” the guidance allows governors to distribute funds almost any way they like.
Arizona received $2.8 billion. City and counties with population over 500,000 could receive their money directly from the federal government. Maricopa County, Pima County and the cities of Phoenix, Mesa and Tucson received about $1 billion all together. Ducey is allotting the other $1.9 billion to the state coffers.
Supervisors were furious that Pinal, which has a population of about 463,000, and 12 other counties are receiving nothing at this point. County leaders say they have also received little personal response from the Governor’s Office. Pinal County’s government expenses to battle coronavirus was estimated at just under $8 million.
The board, composed of four Republicans and one Democrat, met in a special meeting Friday. To a man, they expressed frustration and anger at Ducey, a Republican.
“Time’s up,” said Supervisor Todd House. “We gave him his chance.”
Though he said he usually favors negotiation over litigation, the state has been dismissive of Pinal County and its growth as an “economic powerhouse.”[pull_quote_right]CARES Act funding is not to be a tool to balance the state’s budget.[/pull_quote_right]
Chairman Anthony Smith, Maricopa, said he was “troubled” by the governor saying the state has a “revenue and budget problem.” Smith said that sounded too much like the state may be moving toward sweeping some of the CARES funds for state budget, as has happened in the past to highway funding and education funding during the recession.
“CARES Act funding is not to be a tool to balance the state’s budget,” Smith said.
Supervisor Mike Goodman said residents and municipalities are hurting, and he had to stand up for them. He said there are indications half a million people may be unemployed over the next two months.
“I’m all in on this one,” he said. “Politics set aside, I don’t care. We need to move forward.”
Before discussing the issue, the supervisors heard several government leaders, business owners and nonprofit organizations explaining their needs and the long rolls of red tape needed to go through the federal process of getting CARES funds. They asked for help from the county to ease that process.[pull_quote_right]This is a nice, big wound that we’ve got to heal.[/pull_quote_right]
Wendy Webb, executive director of F.O.R. Maricopa, said the food bank has seen 40% more people over the past couple of weeks. She said they knew they were “a little bit behind” in resources before the pandemic hit, but COVID-19 has exposed how much F.O.R. really lacks.
Wanting to provide fresh vegetables and fruit, Webb went shopping in local grocery aisles, becoming fast friends with 99-Cent stores and Dollar Trees in the process. She said F.O.R. Maricopa spent thousands of dollars on paper products and cleaning products, masks and gloves for clients unable to get out.
And the end it is not in sight.
“This is a nice, big wound that we’ve got to heal,” Webb said.
After it was announced hundreds of thousands of dollars were going to the state’s food banks, she said it became apparent that money was going only to three main food banks – St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, Feeding America and United Food Bank. There are no distribution centers for the funds in Pinal County.
Webb described the process of applying to United, including a 33-page form and the requirement to turn over their data.
Maricopa Vice Mayor Nancy Smith, who put together the city committee known as Copa Cares 2020, which puts much of its focus on F.O.R. Maricopa, said dealing with United required significant hoops to jump through and red tape to get around. And the government itself was no easy task.
“As soon as the governor announced $1 million to help with food supply, we were on top of it,” she said.[pull_quote_right]This whole thing, I knew it was going to be a disaster.[/pull_quote_right]
They filled out the paperwork, supplying the information about F.O.R. Maricopa’s current and expected needs, and filed everything as requested.
“We never heard from them,” Nancy Smith said. “Five weeks later I’m asking the question, ‘OK, what’s become of this?’”
She was redirected to United Food Bank and still has not received funds.
Supervisor Steve Miller said businesses will start “dropping like flies” soon. He said the CARES funds should go directly to businesses and employees around the state so they don’t have to burden the unemployment rolls.
“This whole thing, I knew it was going to be a disaster,” Miller said.
Supervisor Pete Rios, the lone Democrat, said he was cautious about a lawsuit. “That may be a helluva long time,” he said. After the supervisors met in executive session with County Attorney Kent Volkmer, Rios voted with the rest of the board to go forward with suing the Treasury Department.
In open session, Volkmer said his office could prove the federal guidance was arbitrary and should not have given state leaders such leeway. By his calculations, if Pinal County were to be treated to the same formula as Maricopa County based on population, Pinal would receive more than $69 million.
Volkmer, a Republican, said the Governor’s Office would not respond to requests for a conversation on the issue. “We were rebuffed.”
He also virtually called Ducey a bully after saying the county wants to continue to appeal to his “sense of righteousness.”
“If he’s gonna be a bully, you’ve got to punch a bully in the face,” Volkmer said.
He said other unfunded counties are welcome to come on board the suit.
The unanimous vote to sue the Treasury Department includes an amendment sending a letter to the governor and local legislators explaining the decision.
“I believe the message we are sending is, every Arizonan counts,” Volkmer said. “Not just those that live in Maricopa County; not just those that live in Pima County, but every single person that lives in the state of Arizona matters. They count and have the right to be treated fairly. And right now our governor is systematically choosing to exclude 25% of our entire state’s population and effectively saying, ‘You don’t matter.’”