Posted by on July 25, 2021 8:35 pm

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

schuylkill county cares act spending questioned

Last week, Schuylkill County Commissioners basically said that the issue of the 2020 CARES Act – and the $12.7 million we got from it – was done.

But there are still plenty of questions remaining on how that money was spent. Some of them came up during the Commissioners work session meeting on July 21.

Schuylkill Commissioners Criticized for CARES Act Spending

A week prior to Wednesday’s meeting, Schuylkill County officials finally divulged how they spent more than $12.7 million received from the federal CARES Act in 2020.

All the numbers on a one-page handout from Mark Morgan of Susquehanna Accounting and Consultants, the firm hired to administer the money, definitely added up to the amount the County got from that federal funding.

But a deeper dive on the County’s numbers only raises more questions. And those are questions officials weren’t ready or willing to answer publicly last week.

Specifically, about $7 million of that money went to salaries for some County employees, in the Sheriff’s Dept., the Schuylkill 9-1-1 center, and District Attorney’s office.

During a lengthy discussion of that breakdown two weeks ago, the Commissioners, County Administrator, and Morgan, the consultant, said these expenses were part of the County’s COVID response. That’s one of the main rules for spending the CARE Act money, that it had to be in response to COVID in some way.

The trouble with that explanation is that it wasn’t $7 million in extra salary spending. And really, while the County wants to say it did a lot in response to the COVID pandemic, the Courthouse was closed to the public for much of the year, Court activity was at a minimum, and numerous employees were laid off.

Schuylkill County Clerk of Courts Maria Casey questioned how the Commissioners could OK a statement saying that’s where the money was spent. After all, she says, row officers and other offices funded by the County must have their departments budgeted ahead of time, including salaries.

“We all do our budgets a year ahead of time. And as row officers, I think we all stayed within our budgets. Don’t misrepresent to the taxpayers how those monies were used. That’s a flagrant abuse of your power,” Casey told Commissioners last Wednesday. That is $7 million that could have gone to businesses, fire companies, churches … you name it. But you have this dog-and-pony show with this consultant last week indicating that $7 million went to the Sheriff, 9-1-1, and the DA.”

The Commissioners never said the salary money from the CARES Act was covering overages. They just decided to say they spent some of the CARES Act money to cover some of those departments’ salaries.

And, indeed, they admitted that they waited until the end of the year to decide what expenses last year could be covered by the CARES Act and just said that’s where the money for them came.

What Did the Sheriff’s Dept. Get?

Casey further claimed that Sheriff Joe Groody told her prior to the meeting last week that his department received none of the CARES Act money. Now, his department may not have actually received the money physically but requested expenses could have been covered by the CARES Act money.

“(The Sheriff) will tell you that he laid off 8 people, so he didn’t need it for salaries and benefits. So, there was no additional money incurred by him,” Casey said.

And former Mount Carbon Mayor Jeff Dunkel also said that he received a similar response from Deputy Sheriff Brian Tobin prior to Wednesday’s meeting.

“They never asked for the money. They never received the money. They don’t know anything about that money. Where did that $7 million go,” Dunkel asked.

However, that’s not what Groody told the Republican-Herald newspaper last week in its report on Wednesday’s discussion. Groody didn’t say anything about the money spent on salaries for his department but did say the Commissioners OK’d purchasing a new prisoner transport van “to maintain social distancing,”

“That was the only thing I agreed on. They don’t tell me how to run my office and I don’t tell them how to run theirs,” Groody told the newspaper. “It wasn’t my responsibility to go get CARES money.”

Problem is, a new transport van doesn’t seem to be included in the Commissioners’ breakdown of the CARES Act spending. It could be included in the $170,000 or so simply labeled “County response” but details weren’t the County’s strong suit in that spending report.

And since they just made it all up at the end of the year, they’d likely tell anyone who asked, “Yeah, the van was part of the response money.”

Regardless, it appears the County really has no answer on the $7 million or so in salary expenses, money that should have been budgeted prior to 2020.

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