Schuylkill County government officials finally released details on how they spent more than $12.7 million in CARES Act funding last year.
And to the surprise of very few, they said the way that largess was spent was letter perfect. In fact, Mark Morgan, a consultant with Susquehanna Accounting and Consulting – a firm hired by the county to help manage those funds – the state gave Schuylkill County a big ol’ pat on the back for it.
On the surface, that should come as a relief for Schuylkill County taxpayers. Not having to repay any or all of that money means taxes won’t have to be raised because of CARES Act money mismanagement.
But below the surface, taxpayers should be concerned.
Schuylkill County Divulges CARES Act Spending
First, let’s look at the raw numbers. These figures come from a sheet handed out to the press, public, and County officials at the Courthouse Wednesday by Morgan.
Schuylkill County CARES Act Spending Final ReportOn July 14, 2021, Schuylkill County government officials released a report detailing how it spent more than $12.7 million it received in 2020. Here's how the money was spent.
|Prison/Corrections Salary & Benefits||$3,997,056.93|
|Public Safety Project||3,492,824.88|
|911/Communications Salary & Benefits||1,843,032.65|
|Prison HVAC Project||1,176,959.00|
|Sheriff's Office Salary & Benefits||944,711.91|
|Personal Protective Equipment||240,540.30|
|Courthouse Public Safety Project||233,996.00|
|District Attorney's Office/County Detectives Salary & Benefits||211,425.77|
|Unemployment Insurance Payments||115,730.04|
|Family & Medical Leave Act (Codes 1-3)||30,655.99|
|Family & Medical Leave Act (Codes 1-3)||27,787.79|
You can see the County definitely spent all of its more than $12.7 million allotment. But how and where it was spent definitely doesn’t match up with what the public’s been told for the past year or more. And it doesn’t even match up with what Schuylkill County Commissioners approved as money coming from the CARES Act funding throughout 2020.
Here’s what does match with what we’ve been told:
It would have been difficult to screw up this part of the formula. A certain percentage of the CARES Act funding was designed to go toward administering the money. That $155,000 goes to those managers, specifically in part, to Morgan’s firm.
Throughout the year, the County made various purchases of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) designed to help mitigate the spread of the COVID virus. Nearly a quarter-million dollars seems excessive for plastic barriers, hand sanitizer, and face masks, but that’s what the County is saying it spent on PPE, in excess of $240,000.
Schuylkill County Prison HVAC System
Last year, the County essentially said the ancient Prison in Pottsville had no HVAC system. So, it plunked down more than $1 million to install a new system.
That cost was actually considerably higher than the original estimate for the project but as annoying people say, “It is what it is.”
Morgan and the County officials assembled in a press conference Wednesday said if a prisoner had contracted COVID and fallen seriously ill, it could have cost the County considerably more in healthcare costs for that inmate.
“Courthouse Public Safety Project”
This nearly $234,000 expense listed on the County’s report is something Commissioners definitely did approve as a COVID-related CARES Act expense.
These frivolous and likely unnecessary purchases included the touchless sinks, toilets, and water fountains in the Courthouse and other County buildings.
But again, those expenses were clearly identified last year. This is a story about how all the other expenses – the nearly $11 million of them, weren’t clearly defined last year. And it’s about one expense that was supposed to be coming from the CARES Act money but ended up coming from the County’s coffer instead.
For some, we knew the County spent the money to make the purchases but we didn’t know the money for them was coming from the CARES Act.
Consider the following:
Public Safety Project
The County plunked down more than $3.4 million of its CARES Act funding for this “public safety project”. Last year, this was called the “broadband project” or “narrow band project” and at the time, technically was billed as a public safety upgrade.
This is the 9-1-1 project that was deemed necessary in the event the Pottsville emergency communications headquarters were inoperable.
Here’s the issue, however. Although Commissioners originally OK’d this project – all $6+ million of it – to come from the CARES Act fund, they changed their mind and floated a bond to cover the cost of the entire project.
Now, with the release of the County’s report on its CARES Act spending, we find out that more than half of it came from the CARES Act. The remaining portion of the project’s cost – a little more than $2.5 million of it – was paid for with the bond. The rest of that bond is sitting in the County’s General Fund.
At the end of 2020, when the Commissioners were OK’ing this year’s spending plan, Commissioner Gary Hess said the CARES Act funding came in handy for plugging a major shortfall in the 2021 budget. He said the money was used to pay for salaries.
Based on our interpretation of the CARES Act rules as we understood them, that was a big no-no.
However, the County and Morgan’s firm decided to apply millions of dollars to county employee salaries. The people they chose, they say, were on the so-called “front line” of facing the COVID virus. And apparently, that’s enough to appease the state’s Dept. of Community and Economic Development.
CARES Act money was used to pay for salaries in the following departments:
- Sheriff’s Office: $944,711.91
- Prison/Corrections Officers: $3,997,056.93
- 9-1-1 Communications: $1,843,032.65
- District Attorney’s Office/County Detectives: $211,425.77
Again, Morgan assured us these expenses were jim-dandy with the state, so they OK’d them. But the public was never informed these expenses were happening with CARES Act money.
There are other employee-related expenses, too: Administrative leave, Unemployment compensation, and Family Medical Leave Act payments that definitely were within the guidelines of CARES Act spending, and they’re included in the County report.
Another line item labeled “County Response” totaled $175,324.40.
Wait a Minute … What About Those Business Grants?
So, the one thing missing from the County’s accounting of the CARES Act money is the infamous small business grant program.
Although Morgan and County officials said the Courthouse was more than inclined to spend all the money on its own needs within the rules of the CARES Act, one of the constants in the program’s rules was that it could definitely be used to create a small business/non-profit grant program.
After a lot of public pressure to create one, Schuylkill County eventually created an application and awarded some money from the CARES Act in the form of grants to small businesses, non-profit organizations, and municipalities. Here’s how that accounting broke down:
- For-profit businesses: $526,299.11
- Non-profit organizations: $232,887.12
- Municipalities: $373,281.18
But those expenses aren’t included in the CARES Act accounting. Only on Wednesday did we learn that the money for those grants actually came from the County’s General Fund.
Don’t Worry Folks, It’s All Part of the Show
On Wednesday, the County took a lot of time to answer plenty of questions about how and why it spent this $12.7 million in CARES Act funding.
But the main concern of any Schuylkill County taxpayer, again, is whether or not it’s illegal. Because if it is illegal, we’ll all be paying for it via a tax increase.
And again, Morgan assured everyone that the way Schuylkill County spent its money was A-OK. He said the rules on how the CARES Act funding could be spent were constantly changing.
So, when it came time to submit this report to the state for its approval, the County looked at all the money it had spent in 2020 and basically crammed eligible expenses into the CARES Act formula created by the last version of the rules and zeroed out the account.
However, despite the presumption that this spending won’t come back to bite us in the future, one major concern we should all have is how brazenly secretive the County remained through the whole process. That’s especially concerning because the County is getting ready to spend another $24+ million over the next 2 years that it’ll get from the American Rescue Plan.
READ OUR PREVIOUS COVERAGE OF THE CARES ACT FUNDING:
- A Week More to Cook the Books? Boots Says County Will Disclose CARES Act Spending Details Next Week
- Schuylkill County CHIRP Grant Program Puts CARES Act Program to Shame … More Shame
- Schuylkill Commissioners OK CARES Act Consulting Firm for 2021
- Schuylkill Commissioners Want to Bring Back CARES Act Consulting Firm for Another Year
- Clerk of Courts Calls for “Immediate Audit” of Schuylkill CARES Act Spending
- 10 Pennsylvania Counties are Actually Expanding Broadband Access with CARES Act Money
- “Something just isn’t right over there.” – Carbon Commissioner Questions Schuylkill CARES Act Spending
- Finally, Schuylkill County Delivers CARES Act Money – Here’s Who Got a Grant
- No More CARES Act Money Coming to Schuylkill County
- CARES Act Grant Program Comparison: Schuylkill County vs. Carbon County
- Schuylkill County Praises Itself for Work on the CARES Act Business Grant Program
- Schuylkill County Small Businesses Only Getting 7.6% of CARES Act Money
- Schuylkill Chamber Critical of Commissioners Handling of CARES Act Money – Not Addressing Small Business Needs
- Schuylkill County Using CARES Act Money to Buy Touchless Water Fountains and Coolers
- Flawed Applications Blamed for Stalled CARES Act Relief in Schuylkill County
- Schuylkill County CARES Act Spending – $2.8 Million So Far and Nothing to Show for It
- Some Counties Created a Grant Fund for CARES Act Money – In Schuylkill, You Need to “Contact Mr. Bender”
- Schuylkill County Might Use CARES Act Money to Purchase GIANT Property
- Schuylkill County Using $2.197 Million in CARES Money for Backup 9-1-1 in Case of COVID
- As New HVAC System Gets Installed, COVID Hits Schuylkill County Prison
- Schuylkill Commissioners Approve $6.11M Bonds for “Broadband Project”