St. Louis County has nearly $175 million in federal grant money to spend in response to the coronavirus, but the county has been charging local first responders for masks.
As some St. Louis County police departments and fire districts have found themselves shorthanded on masks and other personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 outbreak, the County Council approved $1.8 million in funding specifically aimed at providing masks to local first responders.
But the county is charging for those masks, which came as a surprise to the original sponsor of that legislation.
Third District Councilman Tim Fitch, R-Fenton, said during a council committee hearing Thursday that he received a phone call earlier in the morning from a local fire chief asking why the county is charging fire districts for the masks. The fire chief’s district had picked up masks at the county’s warehouse near Valley Park and was surprised to receive a bill.
Council policy director Chris Howard said the county had charged local agencies for $52,000 of PPE as of Friday.
Fitch, the former county police chief who originally sponsored legislation for $1.8 million in PPE that was eventually folded into a bill that he voted against, said he was taken by surprise by the fire chief and the county’s billing.
The councilman asked the volunteer adviser overseeing the county CARES Act response, former Centene executive Cindy Brinkley, about the discrepancy.
“That was a surprise to me, I didn’t know that we were billing fire departments for county PPE,” Fitch said. “Is this something that we can spend $175 million in CARES Act money to provide that free?”
Brinkley didn’t have a definitive answer, but said the county is working to get one.
“We don’t know the answer to that yet, we are asking guidance from the Department of the Treasury about those types of expenditures,” Brinkley said. “We are actually today reaching out to the Department of the Treasury to get guidance on that.”
Fitch said that before the videoconferenced council meeting, he was on another call with the St. Louis Area Police Chiefs Association and acting Department of Public Health director Spring Schmidt. On that call, Schmidt told the chiefs the county would like to provide PPE for free, but it’s not happening yet, Fitch said.
The problem arose because fire districts can be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, for the protective gear. If the county provides the equipment free with its federal money and the fire districts are reimbursed for the same equipment, they would be double charging the federal government — something not allowed under the CARES Act guidelines, Brinkley said.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that Tim Fitch was not the sponsor of the $1.8 million PPE bill when the council approved it.