Back on June 24, Schuylkill County approved receiving $12,765,970 in CARES Act funding through the COVID-19 County Relief Block Grant.
At that time, Commissioners and Administrator Gary Bender expressed mild enthusiasm at Schuylkill County’s allocation.
Bender said there was stress on his office because first, the money had to be spent by Dec. 30. And, secondly, there is a lot of monthly reporting required to show that expenses are compliant with the rules on spending the CARES Act money.
How Has Schuylkill County Spent CARES Act Money?
One of those rules apparently doesn’t include informing the public through a transparent process about how it planned to spend the money.
Since then, however, the public’s heard boo when it comes to how the County plans. Some expected at least some of the money would be available to aid the many small businesses in Schuylkill County – via some form of special grant program – adversely affected by the pandemic restrictions on their operations.
No such luck for those small businesses. The County hasn’t followed the path some others have taken in creating one of those programs, or at least making plans for it public.
Yes, there was a grant program for small businesses in the County to get at least a small share of that money but it was never made public. It only came to light after constant nagging from some vigilant County watchdogs.
Instead, Hetherington told the public if they want money from the County’s CARES Act allocation, they’d need to talk to Bender, who will vet requests with the help of a consulting firm.
Eventually, the County did release a plan for a small business grant program but it was only sent to the Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce and it wasn’t very well advertised. Further, the County gave businesses just 2 weeks to apply.
Schuylkill County Spending the Money on Its Own Pet Projects and Frivolous Expenses
Rather than help the many small businesses in Schuylkill County reeling from the state’s pandemic response, it seems the County government has its own private plan for spending that $12.7 million. And, to date, it’s squandered about $2.7 million of that money and has very little to show for it.
Tens of thousands of dollars have been spent on cleaning supplies and face masks. They bought the Sheriff’s Dept. a new van and the whopper was the more than $2 million on remote dispatch units for the County 9-1-1 center in the event it had to shut down due to a COVID infection outbreak.
Since the County is being less than forthcoming with its CARES Act spending, we decided to dig deep into the archives of Commissioners meeting minutes and our own recordings of those meetings to find those expenses.
Some we found the County explicitly says the money is coming from that largess granted from the state via the federal government. Other expenses on our list we presume will come from that fund based on the items purchased.
By no means do we believe our list is complete as the County, as noted, hasn’t been the least bit transparent about this money from the beginning.
Creating a Bank Account for the Money
On July 1, the County approved creating a separate bank account specifically for depositing and withdrawing its CARES Act allocation. Commissioners approved using M&T Bank.
On the same day, Commissioners entered the County in to a contract through Dec. 30 with Zelenkofske Axelrod LLC in the amount of $90,000. The company’s role was defined as providing technical assistance and advice relating to the “policies, procedures, accountability, and monitoring” of the County’s CARES Act expenses.
The County said Zelenkofske Axelrod would “remain independent and will not be making management decisions” through the course of the contract term.
On Aug. 12, the County actually reduced this contract cap by half, to $45,000, with this outside company.
Schuylkill County CARES Act Line Item Expenses
Here are the other expenses we’ve found so far with more than 4 months left in the year:
$6,400 – Office of Senior Services
- On June 10, Commissioners approved spending $6,400 to cover “unanticipated unemployment compensation” in the Schuylkill County Office of Senior Services “as a result of COVID-19”. We can only presume this unexpected expense will or has come from the CARES Act allocation the County received. It is not marked on the Commissioners meeting Agenda that the expense would come from that fund.
$4,500 – Parks and Recreation
- On June 17, Commissioners approved making a budget adjustment to the Parks and Recreation Dept. in the amount of $4,500. This money is to cover the cost of refunds caused by rental cancellations at County-owned facilities caused by the pandemic restrictions. The budget adjustment, as it’s listed on the Commissioners meeting Agenda, does not indicate that money would come from the CARES Act allocation.
$21,000 – Election Bureau
- Also on June 17, Commissioners approved a budget adjustment for the County Election Bureau in the amount of $21,000. They say this money is to “cover an increase in expenses for election supplies – including mail-in ballots and absentee envelopes – necessitated by the pandemic. Once again, the County does not say this money would come from its CARES Act allocation.
$23,000 – Mental Health
On June 24, Commissioners approved a budget adjustment in the Mental Health department in the amount of $23,000 to purchase Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for employees. On the Commissioners meeting Agenda, it does not indicate that this expense would come from the County’s CARES Act money.
$25,000 – Drug and Alcohol
On July 1, Commissioners approved a budget adjustment to the tune of $25,000 so the Drug and Alcohol department could purchase office supplies. Among those supplies are face masks and hand sanitizer. It’s not on the record how much of the $25,000 was spent on these items versus the other items listed: file folders, expandable wallet folders, and other program supplies.
This expense is not noted to have come from the CARES Act allocation but considering some of the items included in the needed budget adjustment, it’s fair to assume at least some of this money will come from that fund.
$4,495 – Public Works
On July 8, Commissioners approved a budget adjustment to the Public Works department in the amount of $4,495. This money is meant for purchasing cleaning supplies for that department, specifically. It is noted that this spending is directly linked to COVID-19 and would likely come from the Schuylkill County CARES Act allocation.
$29,570 – Budget Adjustment (MIS Dept.)
Also on July 8, Schuylkill County Commissioners approved a budget adjustment of $59,140 to cover the first year’s payments for a pair of contracts. These contracts are to firms that provide support for the CISCO Smarterm Network and for telephone equipment and to purchase hardware, software, and support for the Barracuda Backup Server. According to information publicly available, “approximately 50%” of this money would come from the CARES Act funds.
$10,000 – County Courts
On July 22, Commissioners approved spending $10,000 on clear face shields for jurors participating in trials at Schuylkill County Courthouse. The County said this money was specifically coming from the CARES Act funds available.
$30,720 – Public Works
Also on July 22, the County approved a motion to purchase $30,720 worth of transparent security screens for the Public Works department. An undisclosed amount of this expense comes from a separate grant but the balance would come from the CARES Act money.
$210,361 – Human Resources
One of the bigger expenses from the CARES Act money was also approved on July 22. That’s when Commissioners voted unanimously to allow $210,361 be spent on “unanticipated unemployment compensation claims” caused by the pandemic response. The County says this money would come from the CARES Act funding.
$49,087.50 – Election Bureau
The Commissioners also agreed to pay invoices to William Penn Printing to cover costs related to the June 2 Primary election. The County says this money covered expenses associated with the re-scheduled election. And the money for these bills would come right from the CARES Act allocation.
$16,868.40 – MIS
On Aug. 5, the County agreed to spend $16,868.40 to purchase technology it says is necessary due to the pandemic response. The money – noted that it comes from the CARES Act fund – purchased a new CISCO Firepower 1140 Next Generation Firewall appliance from Shadow Technologies. That money includes hardware, software, installation, support and related service subscriptions.
The County said “all or part” of the expense for this equipment would come from the CARES Act funding.
$1,179 – Public Defender’s Office
The County also approved spending $321 to buy and install Microsoft Office on a laptop purchased by the Public Defender’s Office. The laptop, they say, was purchased only because of the situation caused by the COVID pandemic.
A table and dividers were also purchased for the Public Defender’s Office that same day. These dividers created 3 “rooms” in the vestibule of that office for Zoom calls and to “accommodate social distancing” at the Public Defender’s Office.
Unknown Cost – Sheriff’s Office
On Aug. 12, the Commissioners approved the purchase of a 2020 Ford Transit van with a Havis Upfit from the New Holland Auto Group for use by the Schuylkill County Sheriff’s Office. The County says this expense qualifies as one that can come from the CARES Act allocation. However, it does not list the amount of this expense in public records.
$2.197 Million – County 9-1-1
By far, the biggest expense to come from the CARES Act funding is the $2.197 million the County agreed to spend on 6 new MCC7500 Nomad Remote Dispatch consoles and upgrades. This equipment was deemed a necessary pandemic expense in the event the County had to shut down the 9-1-1 facility due to COVID.
$60,516 – County 9-1-1
The following week, on Aug. 20, the County approved more spending on emergency communications. However, it’s not clear if this money was coming from the CARES Act allocation. But judging from the fact that the 6 Nomad Remote CAD positions are related to the previous week’s major expense, it’s safe to assume that’s where the money will come to pay for this extra equipment. The cost of these Remote CAD positions is $60,516.
$4,850 – Parks and Recreation
The County approved $4,850 for a budget adjustment to the Parks and Recreation department. This money is to cover refunds given to parties who ordered hall rentals but had to back out due to pandemic restrictions in place.
$2,000 – Contract Adjustment
Also on Aug. 20, the Commissioners approved a $2,000 budget adjustment for Seiders Hill Inc. This added expense is due to increased rental fees and fees for cleaning services. Since this is for additional cleaning services, we assume the money is coming from the CARES Act fund.
$38,550 – Public Works
On Aug. 26, Commissioners OK’d a $38,550 budget adjustment for the Public Works department to “cover reimbursement for COVID-19 related expenses.” They say these expenses are eligible for CARES Act funding.
So far, if you’re scoring at home based on our records and presumptions, the County has spent at least $2,780,096.90 of its CARES Act funds. That doesn’t include the unknown cost of that van for the Sheriff’s Dept. which would easily bump this total to more than $2.8 million.
That leaves less than $10 million remaining. Again, that’s what we know of. There’s likely more that hasn’t been included in any public agenda or mentioned in a public meeting.
For instance, there’s more than $770,000 proposed to be spent on a new HVAC system at Schuylkill County Prison. It hasn’t been formally approved yet but seems likely to be approved very soon. And that would come from the remaining CARES Act funding.
Another big expense to come out yet is the expected purchase of the former GIANT grocery store property in Pottsville which the County intends to turn into a pre-release prison center. The idea for that expense has largely been panned by other elected officials at the local and state level and by the public. To date, the County has stuck its proverbial fingers in its ears and ignored that criticism from all angles.
We’re aware of at least one Right to Know request seeking a formal breakdown of its CARES Act spending to date but the County hasn’t yet responded to it.
The Canary will be closely monitoring this story in the coming weeks and months and updating this story as developments warrant.
- Pre-release Prison Definitely the Plan for Former GIANT Property
- Schuylkill County Using $2.197 Million in CARES Money for Backup 9-1-1 in Case of COVID
- Argall Plans Legislation to Prevent Deals Like Schuylkill County Buying Former Pottsville GIANT
- Schuylkill County Denies Right to Know Request on Pottsville GIANT Appraisal
- Some Counties Created a Grant Fund for CARES Act Money – In Schuylkill, You Need to “Contact Mr. Bender”
- Schuylkill County Launches COVID Small Business Grant Program – But No Public Announcement