Wednesday, October 14th, 2020

Sheriff hesitant about using virus aid

By William Kincaid
CELINA - Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey on Tuesday was reluctant to commit to the idea of covering some of his staff's payroll and insurance expenses with COVID-19 funds, saying it would be difficult for him to justify such a move with his office's operations having changed only slightly amid the pandemic.   
County commissioners have faced difficulty pinpointing expenses eligible for reimbursement through federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act dollars funneled through the state. Unspent funds must be returned, they said.
The county government has received three disbursements of CARES Act funds totaling $5.03 million, authorized through Ohio House Bill 481 and House Bill 614. Of that total, $2.66 million went to political subdivisions within the county and $2.37 million stayed in county coffers, according to Kim Everman, county administrator and clerk of the board of commissioners.
On the county side, department heads submit COVID-19-related expenses to the county auditor's budgetary division for reimbursement with CARES Act dollars.
Everman has asked county department heads to submit by Nov. 20 requests for COVID-19 reimbursements and pending expenses that must be encumbered.
Commissioners sought guidance from the County Commissioners Association of Ohio on potential ways to spend CARES Act funds. CCAO has recognized that multiple counties are considering or proceeding with using the funds for public safety payroll, Everman said. It also prepared a template resolution for counties to consider enacting.
The U.S. Treasury CARES Act guidance recognizes the importance of public health and public safety workers to local government responses to the pandemic, the template reads.
"(It) has provided, as an administrative accommodation, that a local government may presume that public health and public safety employees are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to COVID-19, unless the chief executive of the relevant government determines that specific circumstances indicate otherwise," the template states.
Speaking with commissioners on Tuesday, Grey expressed reservations about recouping some of his staff's payroll and insurance expenses with CARES Act dollars.
"I have some heartburn over it. Our job didn't change," Grey said. "It would be different if I was sending deputies out to businesses and checking social distancing and checking mask requirements."
What did change, Grey said, was deputies were told to work largely from their vehicles and not come into the office. They were also equipped with masks to wear when interacting with the public, he said.
"There was less than half a dozen times that the health department asked us to go check on places, especially when businesses were (supposed) to be closed," he added.
Among other COVID-19-related duties, the jail nurse was tasked with devising safety protocols for and offering guidance to employees and inmates. Two dispatchers are responsible for flagging addresses of people waiting on test results or confirmed to have COVID-19.
The health department updates the office daily. The information is uploaded to the computer system and relayed to deputies, firefighters and EMS personnel "to take extra precautions going there," Grey said.
"But that takes dispatchers, at best, an hour a day," Grey said, adding only he, 911 Administrator Monte Diegel and two dispatchers have access to that data.
"Obviously we want the county to get the money the county's entitled to get, but I struggle with saying that we've changed what we've done to cover that," Grey said.
However, he said he can justify the more than $160,000 in CARES Act funds spent to purchase four new cruisers and GPS/routers, which he insists will help safeguard his deputies against coronavirus exposure.
The 2020 Ford Police Special SUVs are to be equipped with non-permeable transport area surfaces to reduce contamination and aid in quick sanitation, according to commissioners' resolution.
Additionally, the vehicles will come with heat-activating software to deeper sanitize for the coronavirus. They will transport arrestees and prisoners who have been confirmed or suspected of being infected with COVID-19.
Commissioner Greg Homan said he's talked with staffers of U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy. They discussed the need to broaden the allowable uses of CARES Act dollars, he said
Homan also said commissioners don't necessarily want to buy more equipment with the funds.
"Because when you start to buy things you really don't need then there's maintenance costs. You've got to replace these things," Homan said. "We're setting ourselves up to burden us later on when money's not going to be there to sustain and support facility and infrastructure."
If the CARES Act dollars aren't spent at the local level, they will be redirected to other locales, Laffin argued.
"It's going to go someplace," he said.
Homan agreed, citing his discussion with Davidson's staffers. If counties can't find a way to use the money, it will be diverted "to communities that aren't as responsible with dollars," Homan said.
"It's awful. It makes you sick to your stomach to think about it," he said.
Homan then pointed to what he believed would be an ideal use of the CARE Act dollars.
"We ask if there isn't an avenue that can help the general fund that gives us the most flexibility to cover our needs in two or three years down the road if the economy does take a downturn or something else happens," he said. "That positions the county much better than buying equipment that … we may not really need or returning that (money)."
Grey said he, too, wants to see the county retain the funds but expressed wariness about having to "sign my name to something where we haven't changed what we're doing."
"I really don't think that anybody in the county wants the sheriff's office out doing social distancing and trying to enforce mask orders," Grey continued.
Homan said officials must try to come up with a plan and hope restrictions are loosened.
"We can't be the only county that has this struggle," Homan said.
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