Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Monday, Aug. 30 @ 4:14 p.m.
County Considers American Safety Plan Uses, Public Safety Payroll, Jail and Juvenile Hall Medical Costs, Contingency Plan Among Them
Del Norte County supervisors decided that offsetting public safety payroll, jail and juvenile hall improvements and a generator and rate study for the sewer system would be good uses for its American Rescue Plan Act allocation.
However, noting that the Delta Variant has caused COVID-19 cases to skyrocket locally, two supervisors, Darrin Short and Bob Berkowitz, called for setting moneys aside for pandemic response. A third, District 2 Supervisor Valerie Starkey, asked if American Rescue Plan dollars could be granted to local nonprofits responding to the pandemic.
“Several have contacted me,” she said. “None of them are on here and I know all of them have talked with county staff. I want to make sure we’re not overlooking them. They’re important and they’re still playing a vital role during the pandemic.”
The Board of Supervisors on Thursday directed staff to come back with a proposed breakdown of dollar amounts for specific items.
Del Norte County stands to receive $5.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars over two years, which will cover a period of time from March 3, 2021 through Dec. 31, 2024, according to Greg Burns, of Thorn Run Partners, the county’s consultant in Washington D.C.
The county’s first allotment, about $2.7 million, arrived in May, according to County Administrative Officer Neal Lopez. The second half is expected April or May 2022, he said.
According to Burns, counties can use ARP dollars for public health response to the pandemic, to address negative economic impacts from the pandemic, replace “verifiable public sector revenue loss,” offset premium pay for essential workers and invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
After speaking with county staff, Burns said American Rescue Plan dollars could be used to cover a percentage of the county’s payroll costs for its public safety employees.
“If you assume, hypothetically, that each public safety officer, for instance, or member of the Sheriff’s Office is spending roughly a quarter of their time dealing with the COVID pandemic between March of this year and let’s say the end of this year if not longer, then it is a justifiable use to say that you can use your local ARP funding to offset those costs,” Burns told supervisors. “It also has the added benefit of allowing the county to retain local funds for use elsewhere.”
ARP dollars could also be used to help pay for increasing medical costs at the Del Norte County Jail and juvenile hall, according to Burns.
The Del Norte County Community Development Department has also indicated that purchasing a generator for the sewer system within the county service area as well as to pay for a feasibility study to determine if the current rate structure is appropriate, Burns said. Those, too, would be allowable uses for ARP funds, he said.
The estimated dollar figure for the generator project within the county services area is between $300,000 and $400,000, Lopez said.
Jail and juvenile hall medical costs have increased by about $800,000 to $1 million, Lopez said.
According to Lopez, 5 percent of county’s public safety payroll costs equals in excess of $300,000.
“If the board thought it made sense to offset payroll at a 20 percent level, it would give us an idea of what would remain for a set aside,” Lopez said. “Our public safety officers are dealing with the most vulnerable population in the community and are easily some of the most most exposed individuals to COVID in the jail and on the streets.”
Burns said he thought it would be reasonable for the county to state that its public safety personnel spend “even 25 percent or more” of their time addressing COVID-related issues.
“You can see how $300,000 can quickly become $600,000 or $900,000 or $1.2 million depending on how much time we decide is based on a COVID-related response,” Burns said.
Starkey continued to advocate for setting aside ARP dollars for nonprofits.
A representative of one organization, Amanda Hixson, director of the Community Food Council, made a formal request for funding connected with an emergency operations center that could also support Food Council work.
Hixson said she was envisioning a 5,000 square-foot building with warehouse space for a forklift, walk-in freezer and cooler, a place to park vehicles, a commercial kitchen and offices. But there are so many questions that a feasibility study would be necessary before embarking on such a project, Hixson told supervisors.
“I don’t know if the county has land it owns that we could potentially use or if it has a building that can be updated and retrofitted,” she said. “I’m not aware of the permits we would need to get to build such a building and I’m not sure of the costs because there are a lot of different requirements. A feasibility study would enable us to make the project shovel-ready and we could submit it potentially as a Community-Funded Project.”
Hixson said she has other ideas for funding opportunities the Food Council and county could take advantage of.
Lopez said an emergency operations center was one of the county’s priority projects when asking for federal Community-Funded Project dollars through Congressman Jared Huffman.
District 4 Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen, referring both to Hixson’s EOC plan and to the proposed sewer system feasibility study, said he wasn't sold on the idea of a feasibility study, particularly if it determined that the county didn’t have the funding to build such a project. He said he also wanted to make sure that any funding request nonprofits make to the county could be scaled down.
“If they’re asking for funding for a project and it can be scaleable to an amount we can fund and it can still work, I think that’s a much better project,” he said.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Chris Howard said that while an emergency operations center is a known need for Del Norte County, he wouldn’t be averse to a feasibility study since it could be helpful when securing additional moneys to build the project.
However, Howard said his priorities are offsetting medical costs at the jail as well as payroll for public safety employees as the savings to the county general fund could be used for needed renovations at the jail.
Both Short and Berkowitz, representatives of districts 1 and 5 respectively, called for moneys to be set aside for contingencies with Berkowitz pointing out that “you never know what’s going to happen.”
Short, however, mentioned the Delta Variant and Del Norte’s most recent surge in COVID-19 cases specifically.
“After reading a few different reports from different virologists, it sounds like we can bank on more variants coming from COVID,” he said.