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Coronavirus in Schuylkill County

“Something just isn’t right over there.”
Carbon Commissioner Questions Schuylkill CARES Act Spending

bring the auditors schuylkill cares act spending

bring the auditors schuylkill cares act spending

One Carbon County Commissioner has publicly called out the Schuylkill County Commissioners over their apparent mismanagement of the $12.7 million we received in CARES Act funding earlier this year.

In separate public Facebook posts, Carbon Commissioner Chris Lukasevich publicly questioned the spending here.

Well, questioned is a polite word. Lukasevich put it bluntly.

“Have to call our neighboring county out on this one,” Lukasevich writes in one post from his personal page. “I am shocked by this. Bring on the auditors to Schuylkill.”

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And in another page he created for his own role as on the Carbon board, called C4-Chris, Carbon County Commissioner, he writes what we’ve all been thinking: “Something just isn’t right over there.”

Carbon Commissioner Calls Out Schuylkill County CARES Act Spending

He’s talking about recent reports detailing some of Schuylkill County’s CARES Act spending. And specifically, he cites a recent article appearing in the Times-News announcing the release of CARES Act money for businesses, non-profits, and municipalities.

As shocked as he may be by the paltry amount, it’s one part of the report in particular that caught his eye:

Schuylkill County has abandoned an earlier plan to spend more than $6 million from its CARES Act funding on an upgrade to our 9-1-1 system. Instead, the Commissioners on Wednesday agreed to enter into a bond agreement valued up to the cost of that project.

And the CARES Act money that was going to the 9-1-1 project is going to fill in a budget gap, as officials said Wednesday.

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Finance Director Paul Buber said that verbatim, as you see in that quote from the Times-News article above.

CARES Act Money for Payroll a Big No-No

Commissioner Gary Hess, who actually voted against the bond measure but appears likely to agree to a balanced budget for 2021 right before the end of 2020, said during Wednesday’s Commissioners meeting:

“I understand and agree now taking the CARES money that is eligible and allowable to help for payroll and benefits for 9-1-1, the Sheriff’s office, the Prison, DA’s office, and the County detectives to help balance the 2020-21 budget with no tax increases. I’d like to thank the finance and budget team for turning this around and making this happen with no increase.””

Spending the CARES Act money to be “reimbursed for lost revenue” appears to go against the rules for spending that money.

In guidance issued by the Pennsylvania Dept. of Community and Economic Development (DCED), a County government using CARES Act is prohibited. Check out a section of an FAQ from DCED that covers this specifically:

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cares act revenue replacementIt’s pretty clear. This is what it says:

Q: Is there another program coming soon that will allow the counties and municipalities to apply for losses of revenue? Is this still something we can expect and can we apply for the loss of room tax due to reduced travel and drop in business travel? What about any other fees such as reduced sales of hunting licenses, fishing licenses, and others that were not collected because the courthouse was closed to the public?
A: Fund payments under the CARES Act may not be used for government revenue replacement, including the provision of assistance to meet tax obligations.

Q: It’s projected that delinquent property taxes will increase considerably because of COVID. Will counties be able to recover any of that?
A: Fund payments under the CARES Act may not be used for government revenue replacement, including the provision of assistance to meet tax obligations.

Now, if the money is applied to payroll expenses, as Hess suggested it would, it doesn’t appear that’s legal either. Hess said the money was going to cover payroll expenses for next year’s budget.

“This is what the CARES was meant for … to make the county whole on payroll,” he said Wednesday.

Can the county say the money is covering the payroll expenses from 2020? Maybe. But can they say all the people in that department were working specifically to mitigate the spread of COVID-19?

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That’s what DCED mandates if the CARES Act money is going to get spent on payroll.

From the same guidance FAQs:

Q: My county has received a grant allocation from the DCED County COVID-19 Relief grant. Is M5 payroll associated with our COVID-19 mitigation response covered by these funds? The M5 payroll code captured all of the time employees were off work (non-productive time) and paid, as if they worked, in order to exercise the necessary precautionary safety measures and protocols related to ensuring and protecting our employees’ health and the general public’s health during this COVID-19 pandemic.
A: Use of payments from the Fund to cover payroll or benefits expenses of public employees are limited to those employees whose work duties are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency. The statute requires that payments be used only to cover costs that were not accounted for in the budget most recently approved as of March 27, 2020. As stated in the Guidance, a cost meets this requirement if either (a) the cost cannot lawfully be funded using a line
item, allotment, or allocation within that budget; or (b) the cost is for a substantially different use from any expected use of funds in such a line item, allotment, or allocation. If the cost of an employee was allocated to administrative leave to a greater extent than was expected, the cost of such administrative leave may be covered using payments from the Fund.

DCED also covers some other County government payroll questions. And it doesn’t sound like it provides much, if any, cover for Schuylkill County’s intended use:

Q: Can counties use funds for a portion of Commissioner, Chief Clerk, Planning staff, and maybe others’ salaries and benefits where they have redirected their focus for COVID planning and outreach? A large portion of Commissioners’ time has gone into webinars, conference calls, grant qualifications, procuring PPE, and public outreach over the past four months. If CARES funding may be used, must that be taken from the administrative part of the grant? Also, can counties use funds for providing
continued benefits to furloughed employees (health insurance), and can they use funds for the first weeks of the pandemic when we paid salaries and benefits for some of our employees who were not working on site and could not work remotely? In both, cases these funds were budgeted but we ended up paying people who were not doing any work for the County.
A: Use of payments from the Fund to cover payroll or benefits expenses of public employees are limited to those employees whose work duties are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency. All staff time charged to this grant will need to be supported with timesheets.

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Q: Please provide additional details or examples of County positions for which payroll expenses are eligible as COVID-19 response under the guidance of being “substantially dedicated.” Could this include procurement or human resources staff, or corrections staff if their work duties are substantially dedicated to responding to the public health emergency?
A: If you are purchasing PPE or procuring a site to store PPE, then those hours would be eligible if supported with a timesheet. Corrections officers are identified in the guidance given as eligible costs as long as their duties were to address the public health emergency.

Now, it’ll be Schuylkill County’s case to make that they’re spending the CARES Act money the right way. It’s interesting that they spent six figures hiring consultants to tell them what are eligible/ineligible expenses.

But the recent reports from the county Courthouse were enough to raise suspicion from a Commissioner just next door in Carbon County, which we’ve shown to be far more responsible – at least on the surface – with its CARES Act money. (READ: CARES Act Grant Program Comparison: Schuylkill County vs. Carbon County)

Schuylkill County’s CARES Act Boondoggle

This could just be the latest blunder from Schuylkill County government as it relates to its CARES Act fund.

So, the payroll use may not be legal. It doesn’t appear the 9-1-1 project would be legal, either.

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Outside of that major expense, the County also used its CARES Act money on automatic toilets and touchless faucets and fountains, an HVAC system for the Schuylkill County Prison, and a firewall device for internet service at the Courthouse.

Only a very small portion of the money went toward small businesses affected by the pandemic, a clearly allowable use for the money.

For more, check out our coverage of the CARES Act boondoggle from the beginning:

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  1. Just sayin

    December 5, 2020 at 12:14 pm

    Boots and George are going to come out of this looking terrible. It already does but when an audit happens…look out!!

    • Fed up

      December 5, 2020 at 12:41 pm

      George thinks he’s untouchable, and can do what he wants, he walks around with his nose in the air, thinks he some kind of king, then when someone stands up to him, he harasses them, and chases them. I heard he’s even trying to get wipeless toilets with built in wifi to go along with those touchless sinks. What authority’s do I report these people to?

    • Geralynn matta

      December 5, 2020 at 10:23 pm

      As the streets of Shenandoah and the Grinch represents himself so has the politicians of the Skook- STINK STANK STUNK 😞

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