This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.
New Jersey spent more than $573 million on thousands of items to handle the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from a few dollars for soap and stamps to tens of millions for personal protective equipment, meals and emergency food aid.
The state Office of Management and Budget provided NJ Spotlight with a spreadsheet of more than 10,000 separate spending lines for the period between March 9 and July 20. At least $97 of every $100 spent came from federal emergency aid or stimulus funding to help the state deal with the novel coronavirus outbreak, according to the data.
That’s not all the money spent related to the virus. For instance, it does not include salary or overtime, such as attributed to Department of Labor workers handling the backlog of unemployment claims, said Jennifer Sciortino, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Treasury. And the spreadsheet appears to be incomplete: For instance, it does not seem to include payments toward some high-profile contracts related to a report on the state’s nursing homes or a contact-tracing computer database.
Last month, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered the state to create a website to detail how the state is spending federal coronavirus aid, promising full transparency. Murphy’s executive order specifies that a transparent website be up and running by mid-October.
“There will be a full accounting of every penny of federal money, without question,” Murphy said during a press briefing last Friday.
Far from transparent
At the moment, it’s hard to know exactly how the state has spent some money, given that many of the line items list only invoice numbers or a payee and do not contain descriptions. An analysis by NJ Spotlight has come up with at least minimum spending on certain categories, using line items for which details were available.
More than $126 million has been spent on food aid — school breakfasts and lunches, child care center meals, summer nutrition programs and emergency food assistance. Additionally, Murphy announced last month that he would be awarding $20 million from the state’s $2.4 billion CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund, which New Jersey can dedicate to COVID-related expenses at its own discretion, to food banks across the state to help fight food insecurity. The spreadsheet shows five food banks got $8.5 million as of July 20. A $5.3 million food-insecurity award to the Community FoodBank of New Jersey helps explain why it is the fifth largest recipient named on the spreadsheet, getting more than $6.3 million in total to assist with food needs.
“With so many in our state facing hunger for the first time in their lives during this crisis, this critical funding through the CARES Act will enable New Jersey’s food banks and our local networks to serve more neighbors in need than ever before,” said Carlos Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Community FoodBank, on the announcement of the aid.
Not showing up on the spreadsheet
Not included on the spreadsheet is $388 million in additional federal funding for food assistance. That funding includes $208 million in special food-assistance benefits to more than 500,000 schoolchildren who would have received free or reduced-price school meals during the school year and $180 million in new, added benefits for those who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food assistance.
About $109 million was paid for personal protective equipment, including gowns, masks, gloves, goggles, glasses and face shields. That also includes hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes and hospital beds. But it is not clear from the spreadsheet if that is the total spent on PPE.
Administration officials have previously said the state had procured some 30 million pieces of PPE.
At least $2.2 million, but possibly as much as $6.2 million was paid for temporary morgue facilities. From March through May, New Jersey had significantly more deaths than in a typical year — April brought about three times the average number of people dying — which strained facilities, particularly in north Jersey. The spreadsheet shows $2.15 million spent from June through July 10 for a central morgue facility in a refrigerated warehouse on the property of Louis Davino Greenhouses, a wholesale flower grower in Millstone. A spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Management said she did not have a final bill for the north morgue, but said the vendor was Aramsco. The state Department of Law and Public Safety paid Aramsco $4.01 million, according to the spreadsheet, with $2 million payments on April 14 and May 12. There is no description for the payments.
Roughly $1 million or more has been spent on computer and other technology equipment and services, mostly to allow for working at home, including online meetings via Zoom and other platforms. Most of that was spent by the Department of Labor, which struggled with a rush of unemployment filings after Murphy closed all but essential stores and businesses and ordered other workers to telecommute or open for limited hours. Between March 16 and April 18, more than 816,000 New Jerseyans filed for unemployment, with a recent record 214,000 doing so in the week of March 29. The DOL couldn’t handle all the claims at first and there are still thousands who have not received any benefits.
The cost of working from home
According to Angela Delli Santi, a DOL spokeswoman, the department spent $537,000 on laptops to allow staff to work from home and process claims; $237,000 to purchase technology-related upgrades and enhancements to expand the existing unemployment system and communications; and more than $100,000 to do background checks on new staff to process claims, office supplies and consulting fees related to unemployment.
The state departments of Law and Public Safety, Military and Veterans Affairs and Human Services and the Legislature also bought laptops. The health department spent more than $128,000 to rent tablets for hospitals to allow patients to communicate with loved ones who were not allowed to visit during the peak of the pandemic. In some cases, a virtual visit was the last a person saw of a family member before they died of COVID-19 complications. Some $26,000 was spent on Zoom teleconferences and other online platforms and thousands more went to earbuds, webcams and toner and ink cartridges.
At least $7.1 million was spent on three field medical stations — at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, the New Jersey Convention Center in Edison and the Atlantic City Convention Center — and the Secaucus Marriott Hotel, which was used as a quarantine facility for those who had the virus but did not need care. The medical stations were set up quickly with assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the number of cases was rising, with the Secaucus facility opening first, on April 6, because the virus was then concentrated in north Jersey. The field hospitals treated 538 COVID-positive patients. All have been discontinued, but the equipment has been stored so it can be redeployed within 48 hours, Murphy said last Friday.
In the case of the Atlantic City FMS, the state paid another state agency, the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, for use of the convention center. The spreadsheet shows the state paid the CRDA close to $2.8 million for use of the facility from April 7 through May 24 and appears to have paid a higher rate to rent the largest room, Hall A, than the CRDA is advertising on its website. Jerrell Harvey, a Murphy spokesman, said the state paid $4,500 per day for rent, while the convention center website shows the room rents for $4,000 per day. The state also paid for utilities, labor and security and meals at a cost of $15 for breakfast, $16 for lunch and $19 for dinner.
With large public gatherings prohibited by executive order, the convention center was unable to open for meetings or other events at the time. The authority did not answer a request to comment on whether it was losing money as a result. Harvey said the convention center was chosen for no reason other than it was considered the best location for a South Jersey field hospital.
“ACCC was chosen based on size compatibility with federal medical station requirements for 500 beds, Army Corps of Engineers/NJOEM (Office of Emergency Management)/DOH (Department of Health) review of the facility, ability to scale up the bed count at the location if needed, and strategic location in the southern part of the state,” Harvey wrote in an email response to questions. “The size of the facility, in particular, made it desirable due to the fact that it could be scaled up to 1,000 beds or more if needed, whereas the other convention center sites were considerably smaller. No consideration was given to replacing lost revenue.”
The hospital opened April 26. The state extended the lease through Aug. 4 in order to break it down and store the equipment, Harvey said.
A sizable meal allowance
The state spent about $645,000 on meals to feed National Guard troops, psychiatric hospital patients and staff and some state staff, as well as meals to have on hand to feed the public in case of required sheltering in place.
The Department of Military and Veterans Affairs is required to provide the guard with three meals a day while they are on duty, and the spending was mostly for those who worked at the Veteran’s Home in Paramus, where 81 residents have died due to the virus.
“All of these expenses incurred in direct support of the COVID pandemic,” said Kryn Westhoven, a spokesman for the department.
About $217,00 was spent on takeout sandwiches, salads and pizza from three restaurants and for an ice cream party for psychiatric patients and staff at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital in Winslow, Camden County.
“This supplemented other meals provided by the kitchen, but at times, there were staff shortages of food service staff and cooks,” said Nancy Kearney, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health. “In addition, there were travel restrictions on both patients and staff to minimize possible transmission.”
She added that the ice cream party, which cost $175, was provided to assist patients cope “with the lack of socialization and absence of the behavioral incentives” that are normally available but that were limited to reduce the spread of the virus.
Kearney said $1,860 in meals from Courthouse Café and Catering in late March and April represented “food provided to DOH staff while they were working nights/weekends early on during the pandemic.”
And close to $12,500 was paid to Marrazzo’s Market of Ewing for food for staff at the State Emergency Operations Center at the ROIC, said Laura Connolly, a spokeswoman for the emergency management section of the New Jersey State Police.
Finally, the state Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness paid almost $400,000 to Luxfer Magtech for more than 100,000 HeaterMeals “to be used if sheltering is necessary or people need to be fed,” said Christopher Thoresen, a spokesman for the office. These are meals typically used by the military or in emergencies that are precooked and can heat within 10 minutes without needing an oven or microwave.
For at least some of its supplies of PPE and other items, including games and movies for corrections inmates, televisions for DHS facilities and an air purifier, state agencies turned to the same retailer that many Americans use — Amazon. Many of the expenditures do not specify what was bought, so it’s hard to know the full gamut of purchases from the online retailer, but New Jersey spent about $244,000 at Amazon. It also bought items from Walmart, Home Depot, Target, Best Buy and Dollar Tree.
The single largest expenditure listed is for $74.5 million. That’s to cover state health benefits claimed related to COVID-19, Sciortino said. Another $24.3 million is attributed to COVID school employee health benefits claims.
Most of the federal money spent is from funding dedicated for specific purposes. To date, the state has only spent about $314 million, or 13%, of the $2.4 billion it has received in CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) money. New Jersey has more latitude in spending this money, provided it is for a COVID-related purpose that had not already been budgeted for prior to the viral outbreak. That’s up slightly from three weeks ago. The state treasurer outlined a plan for spending all the money in a May 22 budget report.
Sciortino said the state is continuing to track spending and will post it within the next few months.
“The transparency website will track the sources of funding across federal agencies, which State agencies received the funding amount, and will provide data on where the State agencies spend the federal funds to help us recover from the impacts of COVID-19,” she said. “Funding and expenditure data will be tracked in database format to allow users to track which entities ultimately end up receiving funding.”
According to Murphy’s executive order, a repurposed Governor’s Disaster Recovery Office, a new COVID-19 Compliance and Oversight Task Force and the state comptroller will be monitoring the spending of federal funds. They are charged with drafting by the end of this month a plan for guarding against waste, fraud and abuse in the distribution of money. There is also federal oversight, as well, depending on the grant — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, and the Treasury Inspector General for the CRF money. The state website has been promised for Oct. 17.