The Brookhaven City Council has added about $1 million of its COVID-19 federal relief funds to rent and utility assistance, taking the money away from a plan for business promotion advertisements and two city monument signs intended for branding purposes.

About $2.1 million of the city’s $6.3 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds will go to rent and utility assistance following the council’s Sept. 22 decision.

The council unanimously approved about $998,000 for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta medical expenses; $559,000 toward facility sanitization, infrastructure updates and personal protective equipment; $1.85 million toward salary and benefits for the city police department; $700,000 for technology updates; and $100,000 for commercial business support.

City officials said the city is behind on distributing the CARES Act money because of delays from DeKalb County, which finalized an agreement on Sept. 8 for the city to get the funds. As of Sept. 23, the city did not have the money from the county, according to city officials. DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader previously delayed the city’s portion of the funds a week and a half longer than the other local cities because of disagreement regarding tax abatements and annexation policies.

“Whatever we don’t spend by Dec. 20, we have to give back,” city attorney Chris Balch said to the council during a Sept. 22 work session.

Decision to reallocate funds

During the work session, council upped the amount of funds for rent and utility payments by reallocating $1 million that was previously planned to go to Explore Brookhaven, the city’s convention and visitors bureau.

Those funds would have gone to promotion materials for city businesses and restaurants, such as printing and distributing a Brookhaven magazine and purchasing advertisements, said Renee Areng, the executive director of Explore Brookhaven. The magazine, which would be a 30-page guide to local businesses and restaurants, is listed on the funding breakdown as a “Coffee Table Book” and had an estimated $370,000 set aside for its content, printing and distribution.

In that plan, another $88,000 would have gone to two Brookhaven welcome monuments signs located in the newly annexed area of LaVista Park and near Briarcliff Road, Areng said. The city previously proposed paying for those monuments with money from the LaVista Park special tax district, which is intended to cover costs for infrastructure improvements promised by the city, but backed off after a complaint from a civic association leader.

During the work session, Mayor John Ernst suggested putting the CARES funds for the Explore Brookhaven category into the rent and utility relief category in a move that was seemingly decided on earlier.

“We’ve had two people talk about the CVB aspect, about eliminating that,” Ernst said. “I believe there’s more support on council for that based on conversations I’ve had before.”

Councilmember Linley Jones said that rent and utility relief is her highest priority for those funds.

“I don’t want to downplay either the value of Explore Brookhaven or the needs they have, but right now we’re trying to keep families in their homes,” Jones said in an interview.

City staff said the actual funding amounts are subject to change as details for agreements are worked out, but the approval of the categories and estimates will help staff start distributing the funds.

Jones said the process for choosing what to fund was unusual because of the speed of the process, so the change came after the council evaluated the proposal from staff.

“To the extent there are remaining funds, I would like it to go to the CVB,” Jones said in the work session.

City manager Christian Sigman said the city will brief the council on how the money gets spent every week, and the plan allows flexibility to adjust the amounts according to community need and council approval.

City restaurants and retail stores are set to receive $100,000 through the Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce for mini branded hand sanitizer bottles, signage about face masks, disposable masks, temperature gauges and similar items.

The $1.85 million for the police department reimburses the department for the time its officers spent enforcing COVID-19 emergency declarations, said Steve Chapman, the city’s chief financial officer.

Rent and utility assistance

The rent and utility assistance is intended to help residents who are behind on payments or may be in danger of losing their homes.

Chapman said the city is looking to hire the charity St. Vincent de Paul to administer the rent and some utility funds and help find people in need. That charity could then reach out to other city organizations to expand the search. Chapman said the city is working with Georgia Power to help with electricity bill payments.

Jones said she wants to make sure that the administration fees from the charity are not so much that they take away money from the community.

“Every dime that we save in administration fees goes to people in need, so we need to be aggressive,” Jones said.

People eligible must show a loss in revenue because of the pandemic, Chapman said.

“It’s going to be an interview-and-document, research-intensive process,” Chapman said. “It’s going to take a lot of time to do that.”