If Schuylkill County moves forward with plans to purchase the property where the former GIANT grocery store sat, it could use some of the nearly $13 million it got from the CARES Act for coronavirus relief.
The County is looking for a location for a long-desired pre-release prison. And we first reported that the former GIANT store is one possible location.
When Pottsville city officials confronted Schuylkill County Commissioners about that potential last week, no one denied it.
Schuylkill County Might Use CARES Act Money to Purchase Land for Pre-Release Prison
Now, a source tells us that Schuylkill County plans to use up at least half of its CARES Act money on county expenses.
And one of those expenses would be to purchase the former grocery store.
In fact, the County likely will use half or more of the nearly $13 million it’s getting from the federal government on its own expenses before it dishes out any to other organizations or small businesses in Schuylkill County directly impacted by the pandemic and the state’s response to it.
Rules for Spending CARES Act Money
This begs the question: Is it legal for the County to spend any of its CARES Act money on this proposed pre-release prison project?
At last Wednesday’s Schuylkill County Commissioners meeting, State Rep. Mike Tobash (R-125, Schuylkill-Dauphin) reminded local officials that using government money to take over high-value commercial properties is not a good idea.
And rules released by the federal Treasury Dept. are a little unclear on whether CARES Act money could be used for this project. But if you read the rules to the letter, you’d likely say, no, Schuylkill County can’t spend the CARES Act money it got on a project like a new pre-release prison.
Money from the CARES Act allocated to Schuylkill County and other municipalities are to be used on expenses directly related to dealing with the pandemic.
That does include money spent by law enforcement officials dealing with the pandemic. For instance, using some of that money for employee expenses would be OK. But nothing in an FAQ released by the Treasury Dept. (full version below) seems to allow spending CARES Act money on a new prison.
If you wanted to split hairs, you could argue that the County spent extra money transporting inmates at Schuylkill County Prison to relieve overcrowding to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 there. But those are some mighty fine hairs to split.
The topic is addressed in two separate questions asked and answered by the Treasury Dept. This is what we found:
The Guidance says that funding can be used to meet payroll expenses for public safety, public health, health care, human services, and similar employees whose services are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency. How does a government determine whether payroll expenses for a given employee satisfy the “substantially dedicated”
The Fund is designed to provide ready funding to address unforeseen financial needs and risks created by the COVID-19 public health emergency. For this reason, and as a matter of administrative convenience in light of the emergency nature of this program, a State, territorial, local, or Tribal government may presume that payroll costs for public health and public safety employees are payments for services substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency, unless the chief executive (or equivalent) of the relevant government determines that specific circumstances indicate otherwise.
And here’s another reference from the Treasury Dept. which seems like it would prohibit using CARES Act money for a pre-release prison:
The Guidance says that a cost was not accounted for in the most recently approved budget if the cost is for a substantially different use from any expected use of funds in such a line item, allotment, or allocation. What would qualify as a “substantially different use” for purposes of the Fund eligibility?
Costs incurred for a “substantially different use” include, but are not necessarily limited to, costs of personnel and services that were budgeted for in the most recently approved budget but which, due entirely to the COVID-19 public health emergency, have been diverted to substantially different functions. This would include, for example, the costs of redeploying corrections facility staff to enable compliance with COVID-19 public health precautions through work such as enhanced sanitation or enforcing social distancing measures; the costs of redeploying police to support management and enforcement of stay-at-home orders; or the costs of diverting educational support staff or faculty to develop online learning capabilities, such as through providing information technology support that is not part of the staff or faculty’s ordinary responsibilities.
Note that a public function does not become a “substantially different use” merely because it is provided from a different location or through a different manner. For example, although developing online instruction capabilities may be a substantially different use of funds, online instruction itself is not a substantially different use of public funds than classroom instruction.
Still Waiting on Schuylkill County’s CARES Act Plan
It’s been nearly 2 months since Schuylkill County found out how much money it’d get from the CARES Act. And since then, the Courthouse has gone silent on how it plans to spend that money.
In Columbia County, for example, they’ve released a plan to spend more than half of its CARES Act haul ($3 million of less than $6 million it received) on a small business grant program. Schuylkill County has no such plans in place right now and even the idea that it’d spend some of that money on the pre-release prison is just something a source told us is being discussed.
Treasury Dept. Rules for Spending CARES Act Money
Here’s an FAQ sheet released by the federal Treasury Dept.:
- Source: Schuylkill County Eyes Former GIANT Supermarket in Pottsville for Prison Pre-Release Center
- 500+ Sign Petition to Stop County Purchase of GIANT Supermarket to Build Pre-Release Prison
- Argall Calls Pre-Release Prison at GIANT Site a “Major Setback” to Revitalization
- Pottsville Officials Clap Back at Schuylkill Commissioners Over Prison Plans