5 actions cities can take now to maximize federal disaster aid April 6, 2020

5 actions cities can take now to maximize federal disaster aid

April 6, 2020

The Covid-19 crisis is blowing unprecedented holes in city budgets — and hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid is on its way. But city leaders will need to navigate a bureaucratic maze to access those funds, and safeguard them with thorough controls that will make the most of every dollar for the public.

To help city leaders find their way quickly, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the U.S. Conference of Mayors are rolling out a number of supports.

One is a forthcoming resource guide that maps out available funding streams, the steps cities will need to take to tap into them, and how city leaders can create a robust record-keeping regimen to maximize reimbursement and minimize theft.

Another is a free webinar Tuesday April 7, where mayors and their teams can learn more and ask questions of experts in managing federal funding for disaster recovery. Watch a replay of the webinar here and view the slides from the webinar here.

Rose Gill and Adam Freed, two Bloomberg Associates principals driving the project, said the road ahead will be tough, even for local leaders who have previous experience with disasters.

“Some cities have faced oil spills, building collapses, or hurricanes, but nobody’s ever really faced anything like this before,” Gill said. “We have pooled together the experience of numerous monitoring experts who can instill confidence and tangible steps for cities on how to maintain fiscal order in the midst of a large-scale operation.”

“Navigating federal bureaucratic processes is hard under the best of circumstances,” Freed added. “And it will be much harder now, because there’s never been a time where every city is applying for aid at the same time. The federal programs are changing, too, to respond to the pandemic, so it will be like aiming for a moving target in the dark.”

Tom Cochran, head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said the resource guide and webinar will “help mayors and their cities better utilize federal aid programs that are being made available to support the coronavirus response.”

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In advance of tomorrow’s webinar, Freed and Gill offered five things municipal leaders can do right now to begin positioning their cities to get the most of the federal aid coming their way.

1. Assemble your team. Just as mayors need to build teams to handle the medical, economic, and social crises unfolding now, they also need a team tasked to federal reimbursement. These need to be cross-departmental teams, focused on running a tight ship even in stressful times. Gill said this team should draw from key senior officials from within emergency response, budget, operations, legal, administration, and procurement. Outside professionals who have extensive experience with recovery operations and FEMA process could also be brought in to help facilitate the city’s response.

2. Apply for disaster relief. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has expedited their application process to help cities get relief faster. Instead of waiting, cities should file for Public Assistance now, as a surge of applications are expected. Freed noted that the sooner cities get their applications in, the sooner they will receive financial support. (See FEMA’s Request for Public Assistance Form 90–49, FEMA’s Grants Portal, and FEMA’s How to Submit Request for Public Assistance Training Video.)

3. Document everything. FEMA will demand cities produce accurate expenditure records showing that they’ve followed eligibility criteria, procurement rules, and audit protocols. It’s critical that cities start documenting everything now — and reverse-engineer everything they will need to submit in the future, including all necessary documentation for expenses already incurred. This not only will expedite federal reimbursement, Gill said, but also put cities in a good position to pay vendors quickly, and identify in real time overbillings or other contract discrepancies.

4. Get acquainted with the different federal programs and guidance. Federal aid won’t come just from FEMA but also from a number of other agencies. Each will have its own rules around expenses eligible for reimbursement and record keeping required. Start getting acquainted with the different programs now — and keep in mind that the rules are changing quickly, with new guidance coming out almost every day.

5. Don’t dismiss due diligence. While the Covid-19 crisis demands fast action, city leaders still need to do their due diligence around what businesses they’re contracting with. Before you write up a contract for work or start issuing a purchase order to suppliers, don’t forget to look at their track records and make sure they can deliver on what they say they can.