All week, Plymouth County Commissioners have been deluged with complaints that they are taking on a project way too big for them.
From the state. From local politicians. From other counties. All of them saying that a part-time county commission has no business running a major coronavirus relief program. Let the state do it, they all say.
Nevertheless, Plymouth County Commissioners are plowing ahead with plans to distribute $90 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds that they obtained thanks to language in the federal CARES Act signed by President Trump in March. Two other counties also applied to help distribute Massachusetts’ share of funding under the act, but backed off and agreed to let the state manage funds instead.
Not Plymouth. If anything, commission chairman Daniel Pallotta said, he wants to get the program started quickly to avoid a “donnybrook.”
“The $90 million is sitting in a county account and not a state account,” said Pallotta during a Zoom meeting Thursday night. "I understand the apprehension. ... I truly do. But at this point in time we know that the whole $90 million will get back to the cities and towns.”
On Thursday, the state inspector general, Glenn Cunha, joined the chorus. Cunha, who last November accused Plymouth county of mismanaging spending on a $450,000 dredging program, also urged the commissioners to turn the funds over to the state.
"Plymouth County does not have expertise in COVID-19, public health, or public administration,” he wrote. “It’s not suited to evaluate competing needs or to properly allocate the crisis funds to Plymouth County communities and businesses.”
The CARES Act, which provides government funding of $150 billion, allows any agency representing at least 500,000 people to collect and distribute their share of the money. In Massachusetts, Norfolk and Bristol counties initially applied for funding, but withdrew, leaving only Plymouth County along with the state and the city of Boston to distribute Massachusetts’ more than $2.7 billion from the act.
As a result, Plymouth County is now managing a federal fund nearly nine times its annual budget.
Officials in neighboring Barnstable County sent a strongly worded letter opposing Plymouth’s plan, worrying that Plymouth’s actions “will again ignite the debate on the value of county government.” Already, nearly half of Massachusetts county governments have been abolished.
"We are confused by how simply you eviscerate, by your action, the battle cry that we as first responders have shared with our governor and many mayors throughout this crisis that we are all in this together,” wrote the Barnstable County Board of Regional Commissioners and the county administrator, who said they were “appalled” by Plymouth County’s actions.
Inspector General Cunha, whose job is to expose misuse of public funds, warned that Plymouth is making a serious mistake.
“The state distributes federal funds to local communities every day, and therefore it already has staff, systems, and expertise in place to manage funds from the CARES Act. Plymouth County needs to assign the funds to the state. If it doesn’t, millions of dollars could be wasted and the people of Plymouth County could end up losing out,” Cunha wrote.
In late November, Cunha issued a report sharply critical of the county’s dredging program, funded through state grants. The county bought an excavator for $212,000 in 2015, but it sat unused in a garage for four years. The county had neither the expertise nor the funding to operate a dredging program, Cunha concluded, adding that the program had been “poorly executed and provided little value to the communities it serves.”
The commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to administer the program, rejecting pleas from state administration and finance officials who tried in vain to persuade the county that the state was far better equipped to administer the money.
On Thursday, the Plymouth County commissioners met remotely with the 27-member county advisory board, which has authority to approve or reject the county’s spending plans.
Pallotta acknowledged that several communities — they include Brockton, Plymouth, and Halifax — had voted to oppose the plan, but added he believed that, if they voted by secret ballot, the results would be "more affirmative than negative.”
If advisory board members thought they had power to approve or reject the commissioner’s plan, the chairman of the advisory board quickly told them otherwise. Michael Bradley, who is both board chairman and a candidate for county commissioner, said he obtained a legal opinion that the board has no authority over external grants.
After that, advisory board members’ criticism was muted. Susan Nicastro, a Brockton city councilor and newly appointed advisory board member, said she was “very concerned” that Brockton, the most hard-hit community in the county, might not get the funds it desperately needs and wondered if the state wouldn’t do a better job.
“I’m looking for reassurances. What do you have in the way of reassurances?” she asked.
Plymouth County treasurer Tom O’Brien said the county will soon have a system in place “that other entities will model after. We’re a little ahead of the curve."
The officials 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.
Pallotta said the program will be “up and running in 10 to 14 days.”
The Plymouth officials didn’t say how much they will pay the professionals, but said administrative costs will be low. They can use any part of the $90 million to cover their costs.
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.