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Coronavirus in Schuylkill County

Schuylkill County Praises Itself for Work on the CARES Act Business Grant Program

If you missed Thursday’s Schuylkill County Commissioners meeting, you missed an opportunity to see what it looks like when someone gives themselves a celebratory Gatorade shower.

But since you couldn’t attend the meeting in person due to the County’s response to COVID, you had to listen to it.

We’d let you hear what it sounded like if you couldn’t get out of work an hour after you got there, but new Public Comment rules prohibit us from recording the meeting and playing it back.

So, for the time being, you just have to have been there to enjoy it.

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As is customary with these Gatorade showers in sports, Thursday’s happened toward the end of the Commissioners meeting.

We were just getting into the fanfare round of Public Comments and Commissioner Boots Hetherington was getting ready to read off the first comment.

It came from Palo Alto resident and former Mount Carbon Mayor Jeff Dunkel. He, as he put it, for the 13th consecutive week, peppered the Commissioners over their handling of the CARES Act allocation and when the public would hear about grants going to small businesses.

Normally, before Thursday, the Commissioners would just let this comment roll off their sleeve and not give it another thought.

But in this latest meeting, we learned that the County is now preparing a little skit, of sorts, for after the reading of some of these comments. After Hetherington finished reading the comment from Dunkel, he quickly asked County Administrator Gary Bender if he’d like to make a comment on Dunkel’s comment.

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It was all made to sound impromptu but was clearly prepared ahead of time.

So, Bender said yes, he did have a comment on Dunkel’s comment.

And this is where the solo Gatorade shower parade started. But we’re trying to figure out what the County is actually celebrating here. Everyone in the board room Thursday seemed very proud of their work on divvying up the CARES Act money and how it was done. But everyone listening in, presumably, had to be like … “whaaaa?”

“That’s a project Mr. (Paul) Buber (County Finance) and I have been working on very very diligently over the last several months,” Bender said, picking up Boots’ cue.

Now, very very diligently …

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We don’t doubt that the work involved with preparing government contracts and work orders and setting up timelines and expectations on large capital projects is hard work. It’s time-intensive and likely, quite tedious at times.

However, it’s what the County was doing very diligently that’s got people up in arms over the County’s CARES Act management. The small business grant program seems almost like an after-thought. All the County did this summer when it first got the $12.7 million in funding is go through its laundry list of pet projects and figure out which ones can fit under the guidelines for this money.

That included millions of dollars – about half the sum of the money – devoted to an upgrade to the County’s 9-1-1 system. And it included more than a million bucks on an HVAC system for Schuylkill County Prison.

And this was all more important than even mentioning the presence of a small business grant program.

But that’s what Bender focused on next. Rather than apologize for the contracted timeline in which the program ran, the County started high-fiving itself and slapping each other on the backs for a job they think was well done.

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He congratulated the Commissioners for working with a third-party to go through applications the county received from municipalities, non-profits, and small businesses for this grant program that was never formally announced by the County directly to the public.

Bender said that the County’s made decisions on who’s getting a grant and who isn’t. And on Thursday, it was in his office at the time of the meeting. Everyone who applied will learn soon enough.

And then everyone in the board room Thursday couldn’t stop talking about how hard they all worked and how difficult of a job it was to even get this grant program to where it was at this point.

“It’s not a process that happens overnight,” he said. “I know people would like it to. It was a very stringent program. It was a very difficult program.”

Bender even said he and Buber worked on the weekends to get it to the point where it is now.

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Commissioner George Halcovage jumped in to the self-congratulations party at this point, too. He said he even saw Buber working on Veteran’s Day.

Doing this all for you, they are.

Halcovage added that the County is going to let the businesses and others who applied for these grants but were unsuccessful, that they’ll learn why they didn’t get a grant.

“As Commissioners, we wanted to make sure this was done properly and professionally,” he said. “The Commissioners did not review the applications. We hired a consultant to come in and do an independent look. It was based on the merits of the program, solely. There’s a respect that we had for everyone.”

Then, the County began to congratulate itself on its early outreach, communicating the grant program to the community. Halcovage did thank several partners, including Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce CEO Bob Carl, for promoting the grant program.

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What’s interesting about that is Carl recently publicly criticized the County and the Commissioners for failing to communicate news about this grant program. During a press conference a couple weeks ago, Carl said the County actually placed some blame on the media for not communicating the program to the public.

And Carl’s chief complaint that day was the timing of the grant program and the constraints the County placed on businesses that wanted to apply.

In fact, the County only gave businesses 2 weeks to apply for grants. And that rushed timeline likely led to the errors and omissions seen on 90% of the applications.

But that criticism must have gone in one ear and out the other at the Courthouse. On Thursday, you’d think they were parading around the County with residents and businesses throwing roses at them for their diligent work on this grant program. If that were true, it’d be more like, “Heads up! Here comes the vase.”

Halcovage continued heaping praise on Bender and Buber for their work with the grant program. He said their work was “over and above” their normal duties. It was Halcovage who went over and above on Thursday to make sure the public knew how much the County put itself out to get this funding to the companies that will get awards.

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And don’t forget, as the County has reminded us in the past, they could have just as easily turned down applications they believed had holes in them that made them ripe for denial. But no. They weren’t going to do that now.

“For you to take this next step, to make sure we dotted the Is and crossed the Ts, I thank you on behalf of everyone,” Halcovage said.

Hetherington chimed in with his own Gatorade and thanked Bender and Buber for their work on this “very complicated” grant program.

And sure, those folks likely did put in a lot of work. It was probably in a short amount of time, too.

But that contracted timeline was due to the Commissioners and County keeping this grant program off their agendas for an entire summer while they spent millions of dollars of that CARES Act funding on their own projects. And outside of buying PPEs for county employees and buildings, most of that spending is questionably connected to the COVID pandemic.

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The 9-1-1 upgrades, the HVAC system at the Prison, and the touchless toilets, faucets, and water fountains were not things the County had planned to purchase at the beginning of the year, prior to the pandemic. But when that money came in from the CARES Act, it seemed the County was all too ready to push that funding for them.

The Commissioners seem confident those big-ticket expenses won’t be a problem when the federal or state governments come back to audit how the County spent its CARES Act money. No, they’re going to be looking at the whopping 7% of the money that went to small businesses, non-profits, and municipalities, Halcovage said.

Because if the County hadn’t put in all this hard work they say they’re doing, it’d be all of us on the hook for paying it back.

We should be thankful the County did this intensive scrutiny of the very low number of grant applications it received. Those businesses and their needs could have sunk us … but definitely not the money the County spent willy-nilly all summer using the CARES Act funds.

The great irony here is that it took this long for the County to even mention the grant program at all.

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When it “announced” the program, it didn’t do so on its own publicly. Instead, it targeted several organizations to get the word out to its members. It didn’t communicate the program to any media outlets, either.

So you don’t hear a peep from the County about the program when it starts or during its short, two-week application period. But on Thursday, when it came to talking about how hard the County worked on it, you couldn’t get them to stop talking.


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