Posted by on July 16, 2021 2:37 am

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Categories: Coal Region Newswire Coal Region Newswire 2 Coronavirus in Schuylkill County Local News

cares act funding spending schuylkill county

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 Report

On 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.
ExpenseCost
TOTAL$12,765,970.00
Prison/Corrections Salary & Benefits$3,997,056.93
Public Safety Project3,492,824.88
911/Communications Salary & Benefits1,843,032.65
Prison HVAC Project1,176,959.00
Sheriff's Office Salary & Benefits944,711.91
Personal Protective Equipment240,540.30
Courthouse Public Safety Project233,996.00
District Attorney's Office/County Detectives Salary & Benefits211,425.77
County Response175,324.40
Administrative Leave120,924.34
Administration155,000
Unemployment Insurance Payments115,730.04
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:

Administrative Expenses

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.

PPE

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.

Salaries

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:

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2 responses to Schuylkill County Divulges Crafty CARES Act Spending Details

  1. PTFloridians July 17th, 2021 at 9:00 am

    When flush with freshly allocated monies, local governments and its small time bootlicking operatives instantly become stuttering, blithering idiots and deceptive fools. Brazen is an understatement. Every level is another cover for deception and lust for money.
    …there’s a two word term for this behavior, that i remember hearing as a young boy and it still hits the nail on the head. …the shell game continues, while our once great state and beautiful county slowly rot away…populations declining, jobs and factories gone, businesses gone, roads crumbling, and so on and so on, but the folks elected, appointed or hired to represent “we the people” feed us BS all the day long, while young adults wobble around on anti depressants and illegal drugs, always have cigs, covered with tattoos, sport blue, purple and orange hair, trot their dogs around play videogames and wait for the government check to come in…the spend it, like the dunces in the article we just read…round and round she goes, where she stops nobody knows…

    Reply

  2. Frank July 19th, 2021 at 6:02 pm

    Gotta love that they spent $180,000 for paid leave. That is a lot of leave for a short amount of time. Let’s just say the average wage is $30/hr. That’s 6,000 hours of leave/150 weeks. That’s 3 full years of leave paid for what time period? Wow!

    Reply

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