Editorial: Audit will keep track of massive COVID funds

A nurse bags a self-administered COVID test swab during the first day of the New Milford Health Department’s COVID-19 drive-thru testing site at John Pettibone Community Center in New Milford.

A nurse bags a self-administered COVID test swab during the first day of the New Milford Health Department’s COVID-19 drive-thru testing site at John Pettibone Community Center in New Milford.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

The list of unprecedented situations brought on by the coronavirus pandemic includes more than just sickness and loss. To help aid economic recovery, the federal government has authorized billions of dollars to be distributed to jurisdictions across the country, with the noble goal of making up for long stretches where no one was spending much of anything, with predictable results. But that largess comes with pitfalls.

This was displayed most vividly in West Haven, where an employee at City Hall who was also a state representative is alleged along with another employee to have funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars of COVID relief funds into a shell company they controlled. It’s good that this alleged scheme was uncovered and speaks well to state oversight. But there could easily be more.

As a result, state officials said they will launch an audit into how the state’s 169 municipalities spent about $60 million in federal relief funding that was designed to help local governments cover emergency costs accrued during the pandemic. The state Office of Policy and Management said a Hartford accounting firm had been contracted to take on the work.

This fulfills a Republican demand made in the wake of the West Haven incident, which involved a Democratic legislator and which nearly cost the Democratic mayor reelection this year. There has been concern that an audit would cost more than could conceivably be uncovered to have been lost in a fraud scheme, but for peace of mind it’s important to ensure that everything is on the level.

There’s no recent precedent for the flood of money that arrived in response to the pandemic, but neither is there any question that such help was necessary. The expenses of testing and health care for those affected were far more than any municipality could handle on its own, and the economic effects went far deeper. Especially early in the outbreak, many people simply stayed home rather than risk infection, which sent consumer spending, and accompanying tax intake, plummeting.

The state has in recent weeks required every town and city to detail its use of federal CARES Act spending, with categories including cleaning supplies, testing, office modifications and more. Other potential uses included local health spending, payroll costs, food assistance for local residents, and masks and other personal protective equipment for public employees. The variety of uses represents how wide the need was, and in many cases continues to be. There was no way to deal with the pandemic without public spending on a wide scale.

The state has recently gone through yet another period of thinking the worst was over, with infection rates far below the rest of the country. Maybe predictably, that has once again proved to be wishful thinking, and now rates are back up, just in time for the holiday season and the time of year when most people are indoors. A worrying new variant has just started to make the news, but it’s too soon to say what it will mean to our recovery.

There will likely be a need for continued public spending to weather the ongoing pandemic. It’s needed to keep our communities whole. We need to know where all that money is going.