Streamlined Program Passed Its Independent Audit with Flying Colors and Surpassed Larger Counties and States in Its Efficiency.
New Castle County, the smallest but most populous county in Delaware, issues a wide variety of grants each year for county- and federal-funded programs that deliver a diverse assortment of new services for constituents. Citizens, small businesses, and nonprofits can submit ideas for grants, provided they meet the requirements of the funding opportunity.
A few years ago, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act brought tremendous opportunity, but also a daunting challenge. Like many other counties across the country, New Castle County was awarded nine figures’ worth of federal aid to address pandemic-induced problems across a broad assortment of policy areas, including health equity, food insecurity, emergency response, and education.
When money from the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) was awarded, New Castle County had never encountered compliance requirements of the magnitude mandated by the CARES Act. Prior to this legislation, the largest grant it had ever administered was around $20 million. Now, the county was looking at distributing more than 10 times that amount, and it had to adhere to the voluminous and sometimes labyrinthine CRF requirements. The legislation started out with a relatively small number of spending categories, each with a lengthy and stringent set of rules detailing how the money could be distributed.
Evaluating and approving the first set of grant awards was only the beginning. The federal government kept adding spending categories and evolving the guidance—the number of eligible organization types and applicable uses grew significantly over the course of 2020 and 2021—prompting New Castle County to adjust program funding opportunities and applications. CRF guidelines for eligible funding opportunities grew so fast and often that New Castle County developed a living procedures manual to keep up with the changes.
Moreover, CARES Act compliance was an end-to-end process that lasted well after initial funding was approved and allocated. At the start, it was critical for New Castle County to distribute awarded funds to reimburse the first responders, cities, and towns for their frontline efforts. These reimbursements—as well as all CARES ACT–related compensation moving forward—required verification that they were from eligible parties for qualified goods and services permitted by the legislation.
All of this activity—from the initial application and funds transfer to the distribution of funding for ongoing program execution—had to be streamlined and tracked in minute detail for compliance purposes, a daunting task when you consider that CARES Act dollars were spread to several hundred organizations implementing diverse programs. New Castle County heard whispers from doubters outside the agency who were skeptical that a county of its size could run a program of this magnitude without running afoul of federal regulations.
“From an outsider’s perspective, it wasn’t unreasonable to wonder if our staff would have the bandwidth and capability to administer this amount of money while keeping these comprehensive guidelines straight,” said Michael Hojnicki, Chief of Technology & Administrative Services, New Castle County.
New Castle County turned to integrated digital form, workflow automation, and eSignature solution provider SimpliGov to optimize CARES Act dollars both in the short term—SimpliGov’s no-code cloud architecture enabled New Castle County to go live with a fully compliant CRF reimbursement program in less than 48 hours—and in the long run. The county counted on the platform to be sophisticated enough to streamline a complex process with many moving parts and extensive back-and-forth, yet intuitive for constituents applying for services and simple for employees to execute on the back end.
First, SimpliGov’s customizable fields allowed New Castle County to tailor the initial application form for every type of program and agency covered by the legislation—municipalities, firefighters, food assistance initiatives, etc.—and each application had unique workflow requirements to ensure compliance. Constituents and community-based organizations could log on to a dedicated CARES Act application page and submit a request for funding.
From there, the SimpliGov workflow shepherded the application to the county’s finance department, where a potentially lengthy review began. Prior to opening the application program to the public, New Castle County’s finance and legal teams spent many hours going over the legislation’s guidance with a fine-tooth comb to understand what distributions were eligible. In many cases, the finance team could confidently verify that the applicants’ proposal fit the CARES Act’s criteria. However, oftentimes it wasn’t so clear-cut. Thus, finance would send questions, comments, and requests for clarification to the legal team, which included outside counsel, to come to a consensus on whether applications warranted approval or deeper investigation; the finance team could likewise communicate directly with applicants through the SimpliGov system to request additional information and documentation if it was warranted.
When requests passed muster, SimpliGov’s workflow automation tool would automatically generate a “certification” letter with the applicant’s name and signature field included acknowledging that they were receiving the funds and that they understood how they could and couldn’t use those CARES Act dollars. The letter also outlined the ongoing operational requirements specified by the legislation (e.g., annual reviews, financial reviews, etc.). This letter may have been a formality, but it was required by law. If one failed to sign it or lost track of it, the county could be subjected to hefty fines.
With approvals in tow, the SimpliGov workflow would direct finance to open a PO and either register a new vendor or verify an existing one. Then, SimpliGov would usher that PO to accounts payable, which would either cut a check or deposit the monetary award directly into the recipient’s bank account.
SimpliGov continued to prove its value well after the acceptance of proposals. The workflow was instrumental in helping key finance and legal stakeholders interpret, debate, vet, and approve hundreds of invoices and purchase orders submitted by funded entities for program expenses. Meanwhile, as the federal government continued to change the guidance, New Castle County could easily alter forms to reflect new eligible uses and update the certification letter accordingly.
While SimpliGov’s digital form and workflow organized the application submission and review process and subsequent funds transfers, its dashboard and document repository were arguably the secret sauce enabling a county of New Castle County’s size to deliver such a wide array of services while satisfying regulatory statutes. New Castle County employees could pull up any individual submission and view the original application; all accompanying correspondence and documentation between finance, legal, and the requestor; the signed certification letter; and the status of awards, expenditures, and reimbursements. The data could be segmented into categories, including fixed charges, nonpayroll expenses, contractual expenses, materials, supplies, and equipment. Those could be further broken down by beneficiary or recipient.
“Managing a grant of this magnitude without a centralized digital hub for all activity and documents would be virtually impossible,” said Michael Smith, CFO, New Castle County. “At best, we would have dealt with a recurring headache of lost applications, files buried in individual email inboxes, and miscommunications between the various parties, all of which could have proved costly for us.”
New Castle County’s CARES Act program was a success in many dimensions. The most obvious: $322.8 million distributed to the community over a two-year period beginning in June 2020, including $268 million in 2021 alone. All told, the county issued over 1,000 grants of all sizes (including several seven-figure awards), half of which went directly to residents in some form. The others were earmarked for internally generated initiatives.
One of the biggest recipients was the State of Delaware; New Castle County partnered to deliver unemployment, childcare, COVID testing, and contact tracing services throughout the state—the county even ran 11 mobile testing sites, managing the operations and expenses through SimpliGov. All county operations and services continued without interruption throughout quarantine, and New Castle County expanded the breadth of services it delivered to citizens. The SimpliGov-powered self-service portal allowed eligible parties to submit proposals and coronavirus expense reimbursement requests 24/7. SimpliGov enabled the county to successfully evolve its offerings with the community’s rapidly changing needs in the face of the pandemic’s persistent unpredictability over that two-year period.
SimpliGov’s dashboard and storage capabilities were put to the test—literally. In compliance with the CARES Act, New Castle County enlisted an independent third party to conduct a single, thorough audit that mirrored the rigor of one that the federal government would conduct itself. SimpliGov empowered the county to instantly produce the massive amount of data requested by the audit firm in the latter’s preferred format, and the county passed with flying colors.
New Castle County’s CARES Act efforts also laid the groundwork for the county’s critical American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) initiatives, including its Building Better Communities (BBC) and Reimagine New Castle County programs.
“Thanks to SimpliGov, we could support our constituents and our state within the parameters laid out by the federal government,” said Hojnicki. “More important, we are more nimble than ever, able to evolve our community funding operation to meet new federal legislation and ever-changing community needs.”