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Coronavirus in Schuylkill County

Commissioners Adding COVID Projects to Cart Like They’re On Supermarket Sweep

schuylkill county cares act spending

Schuylkill County Commissioners keep approving big-ticket projects using CARES Act money like they’ve got 3 minutes to run around the store on Supermarket Sweep.

We’re, of course, referencing the old Supermarket Sweep, not the new version that debuted on Sunday. Leslie Jones in a frantic, madcap game show setting … no thanks.

Well, no thanks isn’t something the Commissioners have said too much this year when they’re confronted with a new project or upgrade that carries a huge price tag.

Schuylkill Commissioners Spending Money Like They’re on Supermarket Sweep

On Wednesday, the Commissioners approved 2 projects that use up more of the CARES Act money it got earlier this year.

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First, they’ll spend $21,750 on 15 touch-free water fountains in 3 buildings with county employees working there. That’s one of the least expensive of all the CARES Act projects so far but doesn’t make it any more sensible.

The request to buy the water fountains comes a week after they agreed to spend nearly a quarter-million bucks on touch-free toilets and sinks, too.

Also on Wednesday, the County agreed to spend nearly $1.2 million on a new HVAC system at Schuylkill County Prison. That price, however, came in more than $400,000 higher than an original estimate approved by the county’s Prison Board back in August.

No one even blinked when agreeing to spend that dough. All in the interest of safety, they say.

Before Wednesday, the County also used the CARES Act money to buy a firewall device to allegedly increase the internet bandwidth at the Courthouse. And then there are the consulting fees on how to spend the CARES Act money. Those contracts have reached the six-figures plateau.

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Of course, we can’t forget about the upgrades to the 9-1-1 system. Those will cost more than $5 million, actually closer to $6 million. And that’s nearly half the money gone in the blink of an eye.

There are other expenses, too, like the tens of thousands of dollars on cleaning supplies, face masks and hand sanitizer.

schuylkill county cares act spending

County First, Small Businesses and Non-Profits … Eventually

As troubling as their spending spree has been fiscally, the Commissioners ignorance of small business owners in the County is most troubling.

While it technically wasn’t required, this CARES Act money was designed to help businesses, non-profits, and municipalities manage the COVID pandemic, including the government’s response to it.

But county government clearly put itself first. And by our estimate, it’s not done spending this money on itself.

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A conservative guess on the amount of CARES Act money spent so far by the county government is about $7 million. At best, that leaves $5 million. But if you think most of that is going to the small businesses and other organizations who may truly need it — because of state mandates that the county went along with from the beginning — you’re wrong.

The Commissioners, intentionally or not, did nothing to promote or even organize a grant program for needy businesses and non-profits. In fact, it only slipped out in a public meeting once that there was a program.

Even after that, the Commissioners said nothing. It wasn’t until late-August that an email went out from the county to the Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce secretly advertising a grant program.

But businesses were only given 2 weeks to submit applications for it. And last week, we learned that there’s a hold-up with the grants because there were numerous flaws on about 90% of the applications that required a follow-up. That cost the county even more money just to do that follow-up work. It’s follow-up work that could have been avoided had the county thought out its plan for small business aid a little better, or at all, and given more time for those companies and non-profits and municipalities the time to prepare.

On Wednesday, Commissioners told the public that it would have news “soon” on the grants they’ll be awarding.

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There were about 140 applications for business grants from the CARES Act money. Assuming every business gets the maximum award, which is supposed to be $10,000, that would be $1.4 million. Every business won’t get the maximum though, so you can lower that figure.

But just for the sake of argument, assume it is that much. That would mean the county spent just 11% of its CARES Act money on businesses and the other 89% on itself.

If the Soup Kitchen can help businesses, so can the County

Also on Wednesday, the County Commissioners heard from another voice that urged them to help small businesses.

Terry Alexander, director at St. Pat’s Soup Kitchen in Pottsville, said her organization has helped small businesses as best it can by purchasing meals from local restaurants to distribute to people who frequent the Soup Kitchen.

“Through generosity and supporters of the Soup Kitchen, I have been able to purchase meals from various restaurants throughout the county. And if I can help the small businesses who helped me, can you guys please help them as well? I think that they’re struggling and they need some help with the CARES Act money. If someone like the Soup Kitchen can help, perhaps you guys can help them as well,” Alexander told Commissioners.

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  1. James M Gordon

    October 23, 2020 at 5:25 pm

    Who is policing all of this?

    • Canary Commenter

      October 23, 2020 at 5:41 pm

      The County has hired 2 firms to help manage the CARES Act money. They’re apparently giving the go-ahead on all these projects. All the County has to do, it seems, is loosely tie any project to fighting COVID and it gets a green light. But it’s taking months for them to approve simple claimed losses by small businesses. So, essentially, the Commissioners are policing themselves.

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