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AP: States and cities slow to spend federal pandemic money
Many states and cities across the U.S. are getting off to a slow start in spending money from this year's coronavirus relief package championed by President Joe Biden and Democrats

As Congress considered a massive COVID-19 relief package earlier this year, hundreds of mayors from across the U.S. pleaded for “immediate action” on billions of dollars targeted to shore up their finances and revive their communities.

Now that they’ve received it, local officials are taking their time before actually spending the windfall.

As of this summer, a majority of large cities and states hadn’t spent a penny from the American Rescue Plan championed by Democrats and President Joe Biden, according to an Associated Press review of the first financial reports due under the law. States had spent just 2.5% of their initial allotment while large cities spent 8.5%, according to the AP analysis.

Many state and local governments reported they were still working on plans for their share of the $350 billion, which can be spent on a wide array of programs.

Though Biden signed the law in March, the Treasury Department didn’t release the money and spending guidelines until May. By then, some state legislatures already had wrapped up their budget work for the next year, leaving governors with no authority to spend the new money. Some states waited several more months to ask the federal government for their share.

Cities sometimes delayed decisions while soliciting suggestions from the public. And some government officials — still trying to figure out how to spend previous rounds of federal pandemic aid — simply didn’t see an urgent need for the additional cash.

“It’s a lot of money that’s been put out there. I think it’s a good sign that it hasn’t been frivolously spent,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said. He was president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors when more than 400 mayors signed a letter urging Congress to quickly pass Biden’s plan.

The law gives states until the end of 2024 to make spending commitments and the end of 2026 to spend the money. Any money not obligated or spent by those dates must be returned to the federal government.

The Biden administration said it isn’t concerned about the early pace of the initiative. The aid to governments is intended both “to address any crisis needs” and to provide “longer-term fire power to ensure a durable and equitable recovery,” said Gene Sperling, White House American Rescue Plan coordinator.

“The fact that you can spread your spending out is a feature, not a bug, of the program. It is by design,” Sperling told the AP.

The Treasury Department set an aggressive reporting schedule to try to prod local planning. It required states, counties and cities with estimated populations of at least 250,000 to file reports by Aug. 31 detailing their spending as of the previous month as well as future plans.

More than half the states and nearly two-thirds of the roughly 90 largest cities reported no initial spending. The governments reported future plans for about 40% of their total funds. The AP did not gather reports from counties because of the large number of them.

To promote transparency, the Treasury Department also required governments to post the reports on a “prominent public-facing website,” such as their home page or a general coronavirus response site. But the AP found that many governments ignored that directive, instead tucking the documents behind numerous navigational steps. Idaho and Nebraska had not posted their reports online when contacted by the AP. Neither had some cities.

Officials in Jersey City, New Jersey, required the AP to file a formal open-records request to get its report, though that shouldn’t have been necessary. City employees in Laredo, Texas, and Sacramento, California, also initially directed the AP to file open-records requests. Laredo later told the AP it had spent nothing. Sacramento relented and eventually provided a short report stating it had spent nothing but might put its entire $112 million allocation toward replacing lost revenue and providing government services.

Among states, the largest share of initial spending went toward shoring up unemployment insurance trust funds that were depleted during the pandemic. Arizona reported pouring nearly $759 million into its unemployment account, New Mexico nearly $657 million and Kentucky almost $506 million.

For large cities, the most common use of the money was to replenish their diminished revenue and fund government services. San Francisco reported using its entire initial allotment of $312 million for that purpose.

Those reporting no initial spending included Pittsburgh, whose mayor joined with several other Pennsylvania mayors in February on a column urging Congress to pass “crucial” aid for state and local governments.

“Congress must act, and they must act soon. Our communities cannot wait another day,” the Pennsylvania mayors wrote.

Pittsburgh ultimately ended up waiting to spend the money until the Treasury guidelines were released, community members had a chance to comment and the City Council could sign off on the spending plans. In the future, the city plans to use part of its federal windfall to buy 78 electric vehicles, build technology labs at recreation centers and launch a pilot project paying 100 low-income Black women $500 a month for two years to test the merits of a guaranteed income program. The federal money also will help pay the salaries of more than 600 city employees

“Even though the money hadn’t technically been expended” by the Treasury Department’s reporting timeline, “the receipt of the money was enough for us to hold off on major layoffs,” said Dan Gilman, chief of staff to Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto.

Some officials are intentionally taking their time.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, opted not to call a special session to appropriate money from the latest federal pandemic relief act. So far, he’s publicly outlined just one proposal — $400 million for broadband.

Parson’s budget director said the administration will present more ideas to lawmakers when they convene for their regular session in January. Until then, the state should have enough money left from a previous federal relief law to cover the costs of fighting the virus, budget director Dan Haug said.

“We want to try to find things that are going to benefit Missouri not just next year or the year after, but 10 or 20 years down the road,” Haug said. “That takes some thought and some planning.”

Republican state Rep. Doug Richey, who leads a House panel on federal stimulus spending, said he’s not convinced Missouri needs to spend all of its American Rescue Plan funds.

“To the extent that we spend these dollars, we are participating in an ever-increasing federal debt or bad monetary policy,” Richey said.

Missouri was one several states that waited to request its initial allotment. Five other Republican-led states — Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas — waited so long that they weren’t required to file reports by the Treasury’s Aug. 31 deadline.

Tennessee wanted to make sure small cities were prepared for a 30-day clock that starts ticking for them to seek funding once the dollars arrive at the state, said Lola Potter, a spokesperson for the state Department of Finance and Administration. A South Dakota official cited similar reasoning for the delay. Financial Systems Director Colin Keeler said it’s difficult for small towns to take the steps needed to apply.

“The state was in no rush at all,” he said. “The cities wanted to get theirs, but we needed to be prepared.”

West Virginia Pumpkin Festival returns to Milton

MILTON — There are a few local signs of fall: cooler temperatures, leaves changing colors and the return of the West Virginia Pumpkin Festival.

The festival dedicated to autumn’s iconic fruit takes place at the West Virginia Pumpkin Park, which is located at 1 Pumpkin Way, Milton, from Thursday, Oct. 7, to Sunday, Oct. 10. The longtime festival “was designed to help farmers with the raising and selling of pumpkins,” according to the event’s website.

The parade was held in Milton on Sunday as a kickoff to the festival later in the week. Last year, the parade that typically accompanies the festival was held in a drive-by style that became routine during the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s festival will feature vendors, live music and more.

School Days are from 9 a.m. to noon on the Thursday and Friday of the festival, which means that ticket pricing per student is $3 without group discounts. Teachers, aides and bus drivers can attend for free. Other tickets will be $5 until noon. General admission tickets will be $8 from noon to 9 p.m. on those days.

On Saturday and Sunday, tickets are $10. The festival is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Groups of 12 or more can save $2 per ticket when buying at one time. Children 5 and under can go for free.

Here’s the schedule of events:


School Day

9 a.m. — Gates open and Opening Prayer followed by the Pledge of Allegiance

9 a.m. — Large pumpkins on display, sponsored by Putnam County Bank

10 a.m. — Heroes 4 Higher, Batman will teach “The 4 Steps to Greatness and Overcoming” at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage, Mr. Puppet Strolling Entertainment

Noon — Heroes 4 Higher, Batman will teach “The 4 Steps to Greatness and Overcoming” at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage

5:30 p.m. — Creek Don’t Rise (Blues) at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage

7:30 p.m. — Wood & Wine (Acoustic) at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage

9 p.m. — Gates close


School Day

9 a.m. — Gates open and Opening Prayer followed by the Pledge of Allegiance

9 a.m. — Large pumpkins on display, sponsored by Putnam County Bank

10 a.m. — Heroes 4 Higher, Batman will teach “The 4 Steps to Greatness and Overcoming” at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage, Mr. Puppet Strolling Entertainment

Noon — Heroes 4 Higher, Batman will teach “The 4 Steps to Greatness and Overcoming” at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage

5 p.m. — Mothman (Soft Rock) at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage

7 p.m. — The Jake Eddy Trio (Bluegrass) at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage

9 p.m. — Gates close


9 a.m. — Gates open and Opening Prayer followed by the Pledge of Allegiance

9 a.m. — Large pumpkins on display, sponsored by Putnam County Bank

10 a.m. — WV Pumpkin Festival Royalty Presentation at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage

11 a.m. — Patrick Stanley (Acoustic) at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage

1 p.m. — Tim Browning (Acoustic) at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage

3 p.m. — Massing (Rock) at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage

4 p.m. — Heroes 4 Higher, Batman will teach “The 4 Steps to Greatness and Overcoming” at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage

5 p.m. — Corduroy Brown (Folk Rock) at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage

6 p.m. — Heroes 4 Higher, Batman will teach “The 4 Steps to Greatness and Overcoming” at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage

7 p.m. — Flat Tracker (Rock-n-Roll) at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage

9 p.m. — Gates close


9 a.m. — Gates open and Opening Prayer followed by the Pledge of Allegiance

9 a.m. — Large pumpkins on display, sponsored by Putnam County Bank

Noon — Heroes 4 Higher, Batman will teach “The 4 Steps to Greatness and Overcoming” at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage

1:30 p.m. — Heroes 4 Higher, Batman will teach “The 4 Steps to Greatness and Overcoming” at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage

2 p.m. — Scholarship presentation at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage

3 p.m. — Large Pumpkins Auction, sponsored by Putnam County Bank, proceeds benefit the WVPF Scholarship Program

4:30 p.m. — WV Pumpkin Festival Scholarship Auction, at the Ohio Valley Bank Outdoor Stage, items donated by the festival arts and crafts and commercial vendors, proceeds benefit the WVPF Scholarship Program

6 p.m. — Closing Prayer and gates close.

Leaked records open a "Pandora" box of financial secrets
Hundreds of world leaders, powerful politicians, billionaires, celebrities, religious leaders and drug dealers have been hiding their investments in mansions, exclusive beachfront property, yachts and other assets for the past quarter-century

Hundreds of world leaders, powerful politicians, billionaires, celebrities, religious leaders and drug dealers have been hiding their investments in mansions, exclusive beachfront property, yachts and other assets for the past quarter-century, according to a review of nearly 12 million files obtained from 14 firms located around the world.

The report released Sunday by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists involved 600 journalists from 150 media outlets in 117 countries.

It’s being dubbed the “Pandora Papers” because the findings shed light on the previously hidden dealings of the elite and the corrupt, and how they have used offshore accounts to shield assets collectively worth trillions of dollars.

The more than 330 current and former politicians identified as beneficiaries of the secret accounts include Jordan’s King Abdullah II, former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, Czech Republic Prime Minister Andrej Babis, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso, and associates of both Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The billionaires called out in the report include Turkish construction mogul Erman Ilicak and Robert T. Brockman, the former CEO of software maker Reynolds & Reynolds.

Many of the accounts were designed to evade taxes and conceal assets for other shady reasons, according to the report.

“The new data leak must be a wake-up call,” said Sven Giegold, a Green party lawmaker in the European Parliament. “Global tax evasion fuels global inequality. We need to expand and sharpen the countermeasures now.”

Oxfam International, a British consortium of charities, applauded the Pandora Papers for exposing brazen examples of greed that deprived countries of tax revenue that could be used to finance programs and projects for the greater good.

“This is where our missing hospitals are,” Oxfam said in a statement. “This is where the pay-packets sit of all the extra teachers and firefighters and public servants we need. Whenever a politician or business leader claims there is ‘no money’ to pay for climate damage and innovation, for more and better jobs, for a fair post-COVID recovery, for more overseas aid, they know where to look.”

The Pandora Papers are a followup to a similar project released in 2016 called the “Panama Papers” compiled by the same journalistic group.

The latest bombshell is even more expansive, porting through nearly 3 terabytes of data — the equivalent of roughly 750,000 photos on a smartphone — leaked from 14 different service providers doing business in 38 different jurisdictions in the world. The records date back to the 1970s, but most of the files span from 1996 to 2020.

In contrast, the Panama Papers culled through 2.6 terabytes of data leaked by one now-defunct law firm called Mossack Fonseca that was located in the country that inspired that project’s nickname.

The latest investigation dug into accounts registered in familiar offshore havens, including the British Virgin Islands, Seychelles, Hong Kong, and Belize. But some of the secret accounts were also scattered around in trusts set up in the U.S., including 81 in South Dakota and 37 in Florida.

Some of the initial findings released Sunday painted a sordid picture of the prominent people involved.

For instance, the investigation found advisers helped King Abdullah II of Jordan set up at least three dozen shell companies from 1995 to 2017, helping the monarch buy 14 homes worth more than $106 million in the U.S. and the U.K. One was a $23 million California ocean-view property bought in 2017 through a British Virgin Islands company. The advisers were identified as an English accountant in Switzerland and lawyers in the British Virgin Islands.

There was no immediate comment from Jordan’s Royal Palace.

The details are an embarrassing blow to Abdullah, whose government was engulfed in scandal this year when his half brother, former Crown Prince Hamzah, accused the “ruling system” of corruption and incompetence. The king claimed he was the victim of a “malicious plot,” placed his half brother under house arrest and put two former close aides on trial.

Abdullah took power in 1999 after the death of his father, King Hussein.

U.K attorneys for Abdullah said he isn’t required to pay taxes under his country’s law and hasn’t misused public funds, adding that there are security and privacy reasons for him to have holdings through offshore companies, according to the report. The attorneys also said most of the companies and properties are not connected to the king or no longer exist, though they declined to provide details.

Blair, U.K prime minister from 1997 to 2007, became the owner of an $8.8 million Victorian building in 2017 by buying a British Virgin Islands company that held the property, and the building now hosts the law firm of his wife, Cherie Blair, according to the the investigation. The two bought the company from the family of Bahrain’s industry and tourism minister, Zayed bin Rashid al-Zayani. Buying the company shares instead of the London building saved the Blairs more than $400,000 in property taxes, the investigation found.

The Blairs and the al-Zayanis both said they didn’t initially know the other party was involved in the deal, the probe found. Cherie Blair said her husband wasn’t involved in the purchase, which she said was meant to bring “the company and the building back into the U.K. tax and regulatory regime.” She also said she did not want to own a British Virgin Islands company and that the “seller for their own purposes only wanted to sell the company,” which is now closed.

A lawyer for the al-Zayanis said they complied with U.K. laws.

In 2009, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis put $22 million into shell companies to buy a chateau property in a hilltop village in Mougins, France, near Cannes, the investigation found. The shell companies and the chateau were not disclosed in Babis’ required asset declarations, according to documents obtained by the journalism group’s Czech partner, Investigace.cz.

A real estate group owned indirectly by Babis bought the Monaco company that owned the chateau in 2018, the probe found.

“I was waiting for them to bring something right before the election to harm me and influence the Czech election,” Babis tweeted in his first reaction to the report.

The Czech Republic parliamentary election is being held on Friday and Saturday.

“I’ve never done anything illegal or wrong,” Babis added.

Liedtke reported from San Ramon, California, and Mattise reported from Nashville, Tennessee. Associated Press writers Karel Janicek in the Czech Republic, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Josef Federman in Jerusalem and John Rice in Mexico City contributed to this report.

Greenbrier County first to enact face mask mandate during recent COVID-19 surge

LEWISBURG — In Edith’s Health and Specialty Store, Agatha Ubaldi, 87, and her husband surveyed a rack of supplements and vitamins Wednesday.

Days before, the couple arrived in Lewisburg from their home state of Connecticut. It was their third time visiting the town.

They make the trip as temperatures cool and leaves here begin to change. This year, though, while the skies were clear and sunny for their arrival, an invisible cloud hung over their vacation destination.

In September, West Virginia led the world in per-capita COVID-19 spread and infections. And Greenbrier County led West Virginia.

Ubaldi and her husband, who are vaccinated, made the trip anyway. They were pleased to comply with signs directing people to wear masks.

“That’s a simple, simple request from the lovely people here,” Ubaldi said. “It made us feel better about the trip, too.”

Some mask signs were hung after the Greenbrier County Health Department issued an indoor mask mandate Sept. 18.

The state’s hospitals were overwhelmed at the time, said county health officer Dr. Bridgette Morrison.

“We were at capacity, yet all other hospitals were too,” Morrison said. “There was no transferring patients out, or very limited transfer options, simply because again, everybody is overrun. When you have such significant, substantial threats of spread in your community, a layered approach is best.

“From what we were seeing, the amount of death and of people getting sick, I knew our vaccinations weren’t going to be enough. We could see, I think, clearly, something else had to be done.”

When the mandate was implemented, active virus cases both in Greenbrier and statewide were triple what they were at the same time last year. And unlike in 2020, there were no mitigation strategies in place to slow the spread.

Morrison pleaded with the public, she said, until pleading wasn’t enough.

“The board always supported me and I’m grateful for that. For us, it really was the choice of doing nothing and waiting it out or at least trying to see a change,” Morrison said. “This way, we have a chance of getting out of this better. It was a necessity.”

The Mercer County Health Department followed Greenbrier’s lead within days, but no other counties have.

Gov. Jim Justice, who lives in Greenbrier, enacted mandates during the initial virus surge last year, but has opposed reinstating them since, even as cases soared. “I do not feel comfortable with this mandates stuff,” he said last week.

But health experts across the board agree: masking indoors slows the spread of the virus and lessens the stress on health care systems.

“We needed to help our hospitals, our physicians. Wearing a mask — it’s not asking a lot. It’s a simple thing everyone can do to protect our community,” Morrison said. “That’s what I want people to understand: masking is a tool we have and should use in this pandemic to save lives.”

Most people observed Wednesday during a trip to Greenbrier wore masks, a stark difference compared to other parts of the state.

Adrienne French, an art dealer from Cleveland who moved to Lewisburg and opened an antique boutique last spring, said she appreciated the health department’s move.

“People are either absolutely compliant or they ignore the sign and the rule completely. We have had visitors we’ve had to ask to comply, and when you ask you kind of see them make their decision, whether they’ll stay or leave,” French said. “Now, the rule is everywhere. I think that sends a message, and I support it. I am vaccinated, and I wear a mask out of respect for other people. It’s not asking much for them to do the same.”

The business community, said Lindsay Jones, owner of Edith’s, is mostly in support of the new policy. Having the authority of the health department bolsters their pleas when they ask customers to wear a mask.

“We’re doing the best we can to enforce this and keep people safe, and that’s what we’re reminding people if they don’t agree,” Jones said.

Most people are complying without complaint, but some strongly oppose mandates like the county’s, said Edith McKinley, 74, who lives around the corner from the specialty store she founded and once owned.

She said she’s lost friends to the debate. Some people she’s known for years have turned their ire to Morrison and the health department. “They’re getting a really bad rap,” she said.

The state’s inaction hasn’t eased matters, she said. Nor did it help to hold the state fair there a few weeks ago. McKinley called that “a huge mistake.”

“But if you heard the way people outside of the county were talking about it,” McKinley said, ”well, they don’t have to live with the consequences from it. Unfortunately, we do. We are.”

A COVID-19 testing and vaccination tent is set up on the fairgrounds just a few minutes down the road from the health department and hospital.

About 54% of eligible Greenbrier County residents are vaccinated, according to state data.

“We really wish we could get more people vaccinated; we started out so strong. Unfortunately, we have this significant ... subset of our population that just doesn’t want to get vaccinated and is making it difficult for all of us,” Morrison said. “That’s why we need to wear masks indoors; if we can’t get more vaccinations quicker, we need to do something.”

Greenbrier didn’t see a change in case numbers overnight with the mandate. As of Friday, the county reported 288 active COVID-19 cases. Weekly case averages for the county are slowly skewing down.

Morrison said this is how mitigation strategies work: the further from when they’re implemented, the more of an effect communities see.

“It may take a bit to notice the difference, but we are. Our numbers have shown a difference in the last couple of weeks. Now is it just from [the mandate]? No, but we have started to see this, and I do believe the masking helped,” Morrison said. “We’re still running at near capacity at our hospitals, though. They’re doing an exceptional job, but we are still there.”

The situation is similar across West Virginia. As of Friday, there were 14,014 active COVID-19 cases statewide, nearly half as many as two weeks ago but still more than in any previous surge. The state so far reports 3,722 deaths related to COVID-19.

Other numbers remain high. On Friday, 958 people were hospitalized with the virus, 269 receiving intensive care and 172 on a ventilator. Hundreds of overworked hospital staffers are being quarantined. Patients are being treated in hallways and parking lots due to a lack of beds.

Mike Honaker, head of the Greenbrier County Department of Homeland Security & Emergency Management, said matters are still dire. His department oversees public safety in the county, working hand in hand with police, firefighters and medical first responders.

Throughout the pandemic, 911 calls in the county for domestic violence, overdose emergencies and other issues have continued to stream in. Filled hospitals added strain.

“Ultimately, we will be able to help with upgrading equipment and supplies, but the toll it’s taking on the people, that’s the greatest toll of all,” Honaker said. “These people are working day in and day out, around the clock. Normally they’re on 12-hour shifts. Today, it’s 14-, 16-, 20-hour shifts. The impact in a large community like this, it’s huge.”

Greenbrier County is home to about 35,000 people. During the day, however, that population “swells” as people travel to the School of Osteopathic Medicine and Greenbrier Resort, among other places, Honaker said.

“So, there’s more driving time, there’s longer shifts for those folks. And I tell you, when you’re around them, we’re around them a lot, you can just see the wear and tear on these folks,” Honaker said. “They’re at the point now it’s not about making overtime. It’s, ‘How do we get out of this?’”

Honaker said he supports vaccinations and masks but not mandates.

“The answer to this pandemic is not going to be what the government comes up with, whether that’s mandates, throwing money at problems. This ultimately is going to come down to the people in any given community making the decision to wear that mask,” Honaker said. “Think about the vaccination — don’t push that on anybody. … But we have got to maybe dial up people’s sense of urgency about [how] it’s not time to go back to gathering in large crowds, or not washing our hands and not social distancing.”

Urgency has been a tough sell for Justice, who’s used the bully pulpit of regular COVID-19 press briefings to poignantly urge vaccinations and masks, making references to “body bags” among a wide range of other appeals. He’s touted local control on mandates, leaving local officials to shoulder the burden as the state’s chief executive mixes messages.

“When you have strong support from the federal level, from the state level, it is much easier to get this point across,” Morrison said. “When we’re all speaking the same language, when it’s true evidence backing a policy and not emotion, not politics, it’s much easier.

“The governor has been clear this time, as far as he didn’t want to do that statewide. From the county level, based upon what we’re hearing, it’s just easier when it comes from the state and federal level down to [implement].”

Morrison said she has been harassed for her decision to implement a mask mandate. Some of the same people who rallied around health professionals like her last year, with banners and celebrations, are attacking her now.

“Everybody wants to argue with everything, especially us,” Morrison said. “And it’s like, we’re just trying to do what evidence-based medicine tells us, not politics. We’re trying to do what we have to do to save lives, and that’s it. We want to take care of each other, and some people are making it unnecessarily difficult. It hurts at times, really, but if I save one life, if I keep one person from getting hospitalized, then that’s OK. It’s worth it.”