It appears the local hijinks with federal COVID aid money will have a 2021 (and probably 2022) version.
Last week, Schuylkill County officials discussed their plans in public on what they want to do with the estimated $27.4 million the Courthouse will get from the American Rescue Plan bill.
And, of course, their idea was short-sighted and probably not allowed.
A Schuylkill County Pre-release Prison Using Rescue Plan Money? Probably Totally Illegal
We recently reported on the money expected to come from the American Rescue Plan.
Schuylkill County government is about to receive $27.4 million from it. In total, all municipal governments – including the County – will get about $41 million. They can expect equal payments of half that amount over the next two years.
So, the Courthouse will get $13.7 million this year and again in 2022. The first payment will be here by May 11, no later, per rules written into the bill and confirmed by the US Dept. of Treasury. That second payment will come no sooner than a year after the first.
At the Schuylkill Prison Board meeting last week, officials were salivating at the prospect of that $13.7 million. Downright giddy, they were.
It seems they already have their eyes on how to use it: a pre-release prison.
They’ll have a more euphemistic term for it like pre-release center or “intermediate punishment” center. But if it’s a place where people are forced to go and can’t leave when they want, it’s a prison. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck …
The idea for the pre-release center is not a new one. It came up last year – to much public dismay – and it’s been on the County’s unambitious wish list for about 20 years or more now.
Now, it may be one of several fixes to what County officials see as a problem, but it’s not really a solution. The County says it spends more than $1.6 million a year transporting prisoners to other facilities around the state due to overcrowding locally.
Those same County officials need to start asking why, in a County with a declining population, are there more people in prison than ever before?
But County officials don’t have those discussions. Instead, they look for “solutions” like more prisons. President Judge William Baldwin said, in an article appearing in the Republican Herald, that crime isn’t going to go down here.
“The need for a facility is just going to keep growing,” he said.
Talk about optimism!
Commissioners On Board
Without even thinking, all three County Commissioners appear to be on board with the idea. They were literally drooling over the idea that they could maybe use this Rescue Plan money to build a prison.
“Totally makes sense. It’s a long time coming,” Commissioner George Halcovage said.
“This would be a great opportunity,” Gary Hess is quoted as saying.
Rules for Spending Rescue Plan Money
There’s just one major problem standing in the way of the Commissioners’ excitement. The rules, as they’re written now, would not allow the County to spend one red cent of the American Rescue Plan money on a prison.
And as we see it, there’s no way their federal aid consultant firm of Zelekofske Axelrod could spin the spending plan to fit the rules. So, if the County were to go ahead with the idea of spending this windfall on any type of prison facility, they’d likely be on the hook to repay every penny to the Dept. of Treasury. That’s the penalty for spending this money against the rules.
What can the County spend it on?
The public’s still waiting for the final rules from the Treasury Dept. but we are sure it includes allowances for the following:
- Responding to or mitigate the public health emergency with respect to the COVID-19 emergency or its negative economic impacts;
- Providing government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue;
- Make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure; and
- Responding to workers performing essential work during the COVID-19 public health emergency by providing premium pay to eligible workers of the county that are performing such essential work, or by providing grants to eligible employers that have eligible workers who perform essential work.
Notice that nowhere in there does it mention prisons.
Where Have We Heard This Before?
Does this story sound familiar? It should.
We spent the better half of 2020 highlighting the bungled spending of the $12.7 million in funding through the federal CARES Act. Even to this day, nearly 5 months into 2021, we still don’t know exactly how Schuylkill County government spent that money.
That money had rules attached to it, too, but the County government really didn’t bother following those either.
Our best guess is what the county admitted it did with a large chunk of that money – filling a multi-million dollar shortfall in the 2021 budget. That, by the way, is an illegal use of those funds.
Prior to settling on that very bad choice, the County government said it was spending that money on other terrible choices.
For a minute, it toyed with the idea of buying the former GIANT building to turn it into a pre-release prison. Then it backed down from that plan and said the GIANT could be used for more County offices … because COVID, of course.
Then there was the so-called “broadband project” that cost millions but was scrapped from the COVID take. Instead, the Commissioners voted to float a bond to cover the cost of that. And all we got for that is a mobile 9-1-1 system in the event the headquarters in Pottsville becomes inoperable due to COVID.
Not one person in Schuylkill County got broadband internet from that project.
The County also spent money on an expensive HVAC upgrade at Schuylkill County Prison and hundreds of thousands more went out to what could best be described as COVID theater props:
- Automatic flushing toilets,
- Touchless water fountains,
- An over-the-top temperature scanner,
- And enough hand sanitizer to fill the JFK pool.
The one thing the County nearly forgot to do was divert some of that CARES Act funding to small businesses.
A grant program was set up in the Fall of 2020 that appeared to be a mere afterthought. Crumbs for the public, if you will.
It appears that with the Rescue Plan largess on its way, and if the County has its way, the public will be lucky to get any crumbs.