Drones and water slides: How cities spent Uncle Sam’s pandemic money

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, someone in the Mississippi government thought of drones.

The state’s workforce agency used federal grant money to buy drones for a state college job training program.

One problem: Mississippi’s state auditor said the money didn’t fit the parameters for pandemic spending. Another problem: The state bought Chinese drones that the federal government has banned its agencies from purchasing, the auditor said.

Other pandemic purchases on the watch of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security included $61,800 for a virtual reality simulator, $1.1 million for a “robot intelligent manufacturing system” and $313,800 for two spindle lathes for students who had internships canceled.

A total of 22 students used the lathe for a single semester before the internship restarted in the fall of 2021.

Most of the focus on pandemic missing pending has been on fraudsters who stole potentially hundreds of billions of dollars from special unemployment or small-business loan programs.

SEE ALSO: $5.4 billion in pandemic loans were paid to suspicious Social Security numbers

Auditors are finding that state and local governments also blew taxpayers’ money on wish-list purchases that strayed far beyond urgent pandemic needs.

• In Utah, Uintah County spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on snow-making equipment for a snow tubing hill.

• Boston used pandemic money to buy vending machines that dispense condoms and syringes in high drug-use areas. Officials figured that users needed access to clean supplies when the usual syringe dispensary was closed.

• Several communities reported using pandemic money to replace street signs.

• A number of jurisdictions built or upgraded pools. Some cities, including in Kentucky and Arizona, decided the time was right to install new water slides.

• Schools in Orange County, Florida, spent some of their pandemic assistance on a “virtual reality playground.” Hundreds of other jurisdictions bought playground equipment, figuring the federal money was the perfect way to upgrade their offerings.

SEE ALSO: Tens of thousands of federal employees bilked government of pandemic cash

• At least 15 localities have reported to the federal government that they bought drones with their pandemic assistance money.

Mississippi’s employment services agency isn’t listed in those records, which suggests the actual number of purchases of drones — or other iffy wish-list items — could be much higher.

The employment security agency didn’t respond to inquiries from The Washington Times, but in its response to the state auditor, it said drones were emerging technology and more drone pilots would be needed by 2025.

The auditor rejected that explanation and said there was no “compelling justification” for why drone pilots were a critical pandemic need.

Mississippi’s money was part of a $350 billion package earmarked to go directly to states and localities as part of Democrats’ $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief program, signed into law in the spring of 2021.

That was a year after the pandemic first washed over the US while the economy was improving.

Analysts at the time said the investment was far more than needed—or more than the economy could handle. Some experts have tied soaring inflation rates of the past two years to overstimulation wrought by the law, which also fired off stimulus checks to many Americans.

Acceptable uses of the state and local money are to cover budget holes left by the pandemic, offer premium pay to essential workers, assist industries and households still struggling with financial aftershocks, and invest in infrastructure such as water projects or broadband service.

The law says jurisdictions can still initiate projects for money through next year and have until 2026 to spend the cash.

The administration says the money has done more than plug the budget gaps. It gave states and localities a chance to rethink their overall approaches to spending, said Jacob Leibenluft, the Treasury Department’s top pandemic relief official.

In a speech this month to the US Conference of Mayors, Mr. Leibenluft said states and localities budgeted $14.2 billion to pay for nearly 1,800 housing projects, $10 billion for 3,000 “workforce” projects and nearly $4 billion for small-business projects.

“SLFRF funds have allowed recipients to take a different approach this time: to not only shore up local budgets — although that is undoubtedly crucial — but also to take an opportunity to rethink how they can use funds to strengthen their communities over the longer run, he said.

He singled out Boston — the site of the condom vending machines — for praise. He said the city has adopted performance metrics to evaluate every one of its spending projects.

There’s plenty of room to do more.

The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, the consortium of inspectors general overseeing pandemic relief spending, says states and localities have obligated just $149.5 billion of the $350 billion available. Just $107.9 billion has been spent.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

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