The state of Minnesota is asking the federal government to reimburse it for most of the costs of buying the cold storage building it bought to use as a possible emergency morgue.
The request for $4.125 million would cover 75 percent of the cost of buying and, if needed, renovating the building that would provide overflow space if COVID-19 deaths overwhelm state mortuaries. The building, located in St. Paul, was purchased in May with money from an emergency $200 million appropriation by the state Legislature to cover costs caused by the pandemic, and it came in the wake of scenes from New York City of refrigerated trucks being used to store bodies.
The request is one of a dozen made to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reimbursement under federal disaster declarations for the pandemic. The requests, which total $9.5 million, also include help paying for extra staffing in emergency operations, COVID testing and the purchase of personal protective equipment for medical personnel.
Of the $9.5 million, only $776,418 has been okayed by FEMA. As with all disaster relief funding, states and local governments must cover 25 percent of costs. Unused CARES Act money can be tapped to cover the state and local match, however.
Requests for additional FEMA reimbursement for purchases of emergency food for tribal nations and food banks, a statewide media campaign and for salaries of state staff working on pandemic response are still in process, according to the state Office of Management and Budget. And Gov. Tim Walz this week asked FEMA for staffing support for long-term care facilities and hospitals. Ten staffers would be used to help stressed care centers that are seeing spikes in COVID-19 cases.
“We are also interested in learning more about whether FEMA will be able to reimburse for vaccine supplies that are not provided by the CDC,” Walz wrote in his recent message to FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor.
Over the summer, there were concerns that FEMA would not pay for personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and gowns, but that has been resolved so that states can get repaid for 60-day supplies.
States across the country are in the midst of making application to FEMA for reimbursement as most are nearly out of the CARES Act money. That is the massive $2.2 trillion appropriation made in the spring that included per capita funds to all 50 states and large local governments. Minnesota’s share was $1.87 billion, money spent on everything from food banks and child care to rental assistance, support for local governments and funding for schools trying to reopen.
The state has spent all but $59 million of that federal appropriation, according to House Ways and Means committee analysis. Barring additional help from Congress, the FEMA reimbursements could provide the only additional federal help for responding to the pandemic.
If the new requests are approved by FEMA, the money would flow back into the state COVID fund or to the state’s CARES Act account. Both accounts must either be spent by the end of the year or see the money flow back to the state general fund in the case of the state COVID-19 fund or to the federal treasury in the case of the CARES Act.
The Walz administration is currently using the would-be morgue to store PPE and other equipment and could use it for vaccine storage and distribution, since the vaccines being tested require refrigeration. Should the building be sold later, FEMA would be reimbursed for any money it contributed.
The building has become controversial, as some Republicans have used it to suggest pandemic money isn’t being well spent. The state was initially trying to lease a cold-storage warehouse but was unable to find a willing lessor. The building had been used for fruits and vegetables but was vacant when purchased.
All requests for uses of the COVID-19 Minnesota Fund must be approved by a majority of the fund’s 10 members, which is made up of five Republicans and five Democrats. The morgue purchase received unanimous approval. The state has spent all but $18.8 million of the $200 million set aside for the fund in April.
Sen. Michelle Benson, a Ham Lake Republican and chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said she opposed the morgue purchase as unnecessary when temporary facilities could be used if a surge of deaths exceed the capacity of existing facilities.
“They did it at the time when the model they were using was fundamentally flawed,” she said in reference to the state’s model for projecting infection and death rates from COVID-19. “There are ways to set up temporary morgues.”
Benson also said that if the state gets reimbursed for most of the cost of the morgue, the money should go back into the state general fund to help with the impending budget shortfall. “It’s my understanding that they already have a plan to spend it,” Benson said of the Walz Administration. “They are spending this money as fast as they can get their hands on it.”
The same is true of the cities, counties and townships that shared in an $841 million distribution of CARES Act money over the summer. What they don’t spend by Nov. 15 reverts to their counties; what counties don’t spend by Dec. 1 must be returned to the state, which gives the state a month to use it before their own federal deadline hits.
But Benson called that pattern to spend all state and federal money disappointing given the state’s $2.4 billion deficit. Some of the federal dollars could reimburse state coffers for the money the state spent on its own to respond to the pandemic.
“Every dollar that we spend on COVID-related things like legal aid and a network of computers is money we have for the general fund next year,” Benson said. “Is this a higher priority than general fund spending.”