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How did Plymouth County end up with $90 million in federal relief funds?

No other county government in Massachusetts got any federal money for coronavirus aid

The Plymouth Rock historical site in downtown Plymouth.
The Plymouth Rock historical site in downtown Plymouth.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/file

When Congress approved $2.7 billion in coronavirus relief funds for Massachusetts, the Baker administration and the City of Boston stepped forward to oversee distribution of the money.

Oh, and one other government agency: the Plymouth County Commissioners Office.

The county’s three commissioners took advantage of wording in the CARES Act, signed by President Trump last month, to receive $90 million in federal funds that they will distribute — an amount almost nine times bigger than their entire annual budget.

Now the state wants the county to give the money to the state for distribution, and some local politicians wonder whether the commissioners have the expertise to dole out the money efficiently and fairly. No other county government has tried to claim a share of Massachusetts’ relief funds.

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“Massachusetts state government already has the infrastructure in place to be able to administer a $90 million grant program,” said John Mahoney, a Plymouth selectman and member of the county advisory board. “They’ll be able to objectively assess the needs of 27 communities in a timely fashion."

But the three county commissioners aren’t budging, having voted unanimously on Tuesday to go forward with managing the massive fund after just eight minutes of discussion.

“I have absolutely 100 percent certainty that we will launch this program quicker than the Commonwealth; we will be far more effective and cost-efficient with the money,” said County Commission chairman Daniel Pallotta during the meeting.

He offered no details about how the program would work, but said later that commissioners have hired the law firm Murphy, Hesse, Toomey and Lehane and the auditing firm Melanson Heath “to ensure the complete oversight and compliance” with the CARES Act.

The vote effectively rebuffed state Administration & Finance officials who tried to persuade the county the state was far better equipped to administer the money.

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In an April 27 letter, the secretary of Administration & Finance, Michael J. Heffernan, urged the county to transfer the funds to the state, saying, “We believe the Commonwealth is better positioned to manage multiple federal funding streams as we maximize resources for the residents of Plymouth County and the Commonwealth.”

The CARES Act allows any governmental body representing populations of at least 500,000 to apply for funds to cover "necessary expenses” incurred because of the pandemic. In other parts of the country, counties are essential branches of government. In Massachusetts, however, most county government has been abolished. But Plymouth County, with a 2019 population of 521,000, has hung on.

Aside from Plymouth County and the state itself, Boston’s is the only other government that applied directly for the federal aid. Boston received $120 million. The state has not asked Boston officials to turn over any of the money.

Under the terms of the act, any part of a grant can be used to cover administrative costs.

Still, whether Plymouth County will be able to hang onto the money is unclear. The Plymouth County Advisory Board, which authorizes the county’s spending, is scheduled to debate the plan Thursday.

Pallotta said that while members were invited to the meeting, the session is informal and no votes will be taken.

Already, officials of several municipalities in the county have objected to the plan.

In an April 29 letter to the county commissioners, Halifax selectmen urged the commission to turn over the money to the state.

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“The County Commissioners have never managed a grant program of this size,” wrote the three board members.

And several representatives to the county advisory board said they are likely to vote against the plan. Because members’ votes are weighted, based on the value of the property in their municipalities, just a handful of representatives could kill the plan.

Mahoney, the Plymouth selectman, said having the county distribute the money is “not a good idea.” But before turning the money over to the state, he wants the state to pledge to reinvest the money in Plymouth County.

Susan Nicastro, a Brockton city councilor and newly appointed advisory board member, said she had many unanswered questions — even after participating in a conference call with county officials.

Nicastro, who represents Ward 4 in a city that ranks second in the state for coronavirus cases, said she’s concerned about the money getting to those who need it most.

“I have to protect my people,” she said. “I understand the state has a framework. They have to be way ahead of the county."

At-large Brockton city councilor and former mayor Win Farwell said he, too, opposes allowing the commissioners to manage the relief fund.

“It’s nothing personal, but [the expertise is] just not there,” Farwell said jokingly. “Is there anything more frightening than putting $90 million into the hands of three part-time officials?”


Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.