Local governments stand to receive nearly $9 million in state grants during the pandemic, though the money won’t be available until the summer.
The City of Knoxville and Knox County each could receive more than $4.1 million in grant funding from the State of Tennessee to help with capital improvements during the coronavirus crisis. Farragut also could see an infusion of state funds through the program announced Monday by Gov. Bill Lee.
The state grant funding can be used for capital projects including roads, utility upgrades and information systems, in addition to coronavirus crisis initiatives.
Under the program, cities and counties in Tennessee are eligible to receive a collective total of $200 million after July 1, when the next fiscal year begins. That means that local governments would still have to pay up front for coronavirus-related projects started before that date, but the funding could help bolster budgets down the road.
“Capital maintenance, public safety and road projects don’t pause for disasters like the March tornadoes and the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lee said in a statement. “This grant fund will ease the burden on local governments as they work to meet infrastructure and safety obligations.”
The amount was doubled from an original $100 million in local grants that Lee announced in his proposed budget in February. It was included in the substitute budget the Legislature approved before hastily recessing on March 19.
The announcement came hours before the state Department of Health revealed new case statistics showing that two more people in Knox County have died from COVID-19, bringing the total to three. Two Blount Countians also died. Statewide, the death toll soared from 44 to 65 on Monday.
“We just lost another 21 Tennesseans in the past 24 hours,” Lee said during his daily briefing in Nashville.
Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, has been warning of higher case numbers and the possibility of more deaths daily. Lee said last week that Tennessee should see a surge in COVID-19 patients, most likely in the third week of April.
Buchanan gave her daily coronavirus update for the media before either the deaths or the grant program became public. In a statement issued late Monday afternoon, the Health Department said, “The additional deaths are in high-risk groups,” which typically means people whose ages or underlying health conditions make them more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19.
Lee included the funding for local governments in the state budget for next fiscal year the Legislature quickly approved last month. The grant amounts are based on population, with a minimum of $500,000 per county and $30,000 per city. Knox County and the City of Knoxville are the third largest county and city, respectively, in the state.
Under the funding formula, Knoxville is scheduled to receive $4,167,837, and $4,108,218 will go to Knox County. Farragut’s portion will be $536,604.
“Community projects don’t stop even though the world is focused on other issues,” Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said in a statement. “Even with skeleton crews and dwindling revenue, county employees are still getting important work done. This grant will be helpful in ensuring we can continue to meet the needs of Knox County.”
The Kincannon administration did not comment on the grant program.
The funding isn’t intended exclusively for COVID-19 response measures, though cities and counties can funnel the money toward coronavirus containment efforts as long as it’s for one-time expenditures.
One obvious candidate for funding locally is the temporary hospital that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is planning to build inside the Knoxville Expo Center on Clinton Highway.
Only 16 of Knox County’s 119 patients so far have required hospitalization, though officials have warned that number will continue to rise and an overflow hospital treating COVID-19 patients who don’t need critical care likely will be needed.
After renovations are completed at the Expo Center, local entities will have to pay operating expenses. The grants can’t be used to pay for staffing — salaries are expressly forbidden expenses — but can go toward furnishings, supplies and equipment. Because of the timing of the grant awards, however, the funding won’t be available up front for cities and counties to use now.
Local governments also can purchase cleaning supplies and emergency food stockpiles, as well as fund shelter programs.
Funds may go toward non-pandemic-related uses such as road projects, information systems upgrades, capital maintenance, utility system improvements and public safety projects. The money can’t go toward new building construction.
Certain disaster-related expenses — including relief efforts in counties hit by tornadoes last March — are also eligible for funding. Local governments will be allowed to use the grant money as matching funds for grants from other sources.
The application deadline for local governments is April 30.