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Relief money still in coffers

Trumbull hasn’t spent $2.8M of $10.5M from CARES Act funds

Staff photo / R. Michael Semple Trumbull County custodian Christina Loney of Johnston sanitizes a door handle at the Trumbull County administration building. The county has spent approximately 73 percent of its $10.5 million in federal CARES Act funding, including a portion on cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.

WARREN — Trumbull County has spent about 73 percent of the emergency pandemic funding it received through the federal CARES Act.

The county was awarded about $10.5 million and through Feb. 5 has spent $7.698 million, leaving about $2.8 million in reserve, according to documents provided by the Trumbull County commissioners’ and auditor’s offices.

After two of three commissioners committed Thursday to use some funds to build a structure for vaccine distribution, it appears about $8.098 million of the money has been spent or dedicated, leaving approximately $2.4 million. The building is expected to cost $400,000 or less.

While original guidelines initially required communities to use CARES Act funding before the end of 2020, an extension was granted by the federal government to allow the funds to be used until the end of 2021.

PAYROLL

Federal guidelines allow the special funds to pay for certain employees, including those in public safety fields, such as Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office employees, 911 dispatchers, those whose work has been altered substantially due to the pandemic, those hired to deal with pandemic-related issues and employees asked to quarantine or stay home because of the pandemic.

Some of the largest portion of the spending went to pay the salaries, health and life insurance, Medicare coverage and Ohio Public Employees Retirement System payments for certain employees, amounting to $5.264 million.

Some of the funds went to one-time COVID-19 hazard pay for sheriff’s office and 911 center employees. Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Joe Dragovich said the money has paid for about one hour of work per shift because the pandemic has altered how duties are performed.

DISTRIBUTION

Commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa said money helped increase air quality and safety throughout the county’s buildings, provided assistance and enabled the purchase of personal protective equipment.

“The CARES Act has been a critical element to Trumbull County’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. What began with acquiring PPE and necessary supplies has really increased to assistance across both the public and private sector. Whether it was nearly $1.5 million in aid to local small businesses and non-profits or the money spent to aid with COVID-19 vaccination sites,” Cantalamessa said.

The county spent money on equipment for virtual meetings and fees paid to host meetings, on personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, cleaning supplies, building cleaning services, signage, touchless upgrades, computer laptops and iPads, donations, vaccinations and other items.

The county spent about $68,000 with Belenky Inc. for washers and dryers. More than $60,000 went toward computer software. Several thousand was spent on electrostatic cleaning sprayers. The county paid Niles $6,700 for emergency 911 assistance when the county’s 911 center was understaffed due to COVID-19 concerns. The documents show about $136,000 was spent on records equipment.

The county donated $100,000 each to the Warren Family Mission, Second Harvest Food Bank, the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Niles Community Services.

Thousands were used for computer laptops and iPads, with various vendors.

The county spent more than $20,000 on touchfree light switches with Grainger and about $60,000 on glass partitions in various county buildings. The county spent about $40,000 on an ocular scanner, and $125,000 went to fund the county’s vaccine clinic.

Commissioners also programmed about $1 million for small business assistance, the CARES 4 Trumbull program run through the Trumbull County Planning Commission and Valley Economic Development Partners. All of that funding has been spent.

Commissioner Niki Frenchko said commissioners are looking at spending funds on air purification systems in county work areas.

“It protects the employees and clients that come in and out the door,” Frenchko said.

She drafted a CARES Act funding requisition form to be used for future funding requests.

BUILDING CONTROVERSY

During a county commissioner meeting Thursday, commissioners Cantalamessa and Frank Fuda voted in favor of granting a request from the Trumbull County Combined Health District to use CARES Act funding to construct a building at the Trumbull County Fairgrounds to administer vaccines.

Frenchko voted against the measure, saying she does not believe enough alternatives to new construction were properly vetted to comply with federal CARES Act spending guidelines. The guidelines state before the funds can be used on a building, a “government must determine that it is not able to meet the need arising from the public health emergency in a cost-effective manner by leasing property or equipment or by improving property already owned and maintain documentation to support this determination.” Frenchko said she believes alternative ways to distribute the vaccine without a large drive-thru clinic exist, such as by using more pop-clinics.

Health board members say they can vaccinate people faster with drive-thrus.

One of the alternatives suggested was modifying the former Bazetta fire station at the fairgrounds to accommodate the traffic of drive-thru clinics, for $60,000.

But “this renovation would only allow for an additional two vehicles at a time in the building, making it a non-cost-effective expenditure,” members of the health board wrote in a letter to commissioners.

The shots are being given in a tent now. It is expected to take four to eight weeks to build the new structure. The building would allow three lanes of traffic to move through at a time, increasing the amount of vaccines an hour given and moving traffic along more quickly, advocates say.

Frenchko said it doesn’t appear enough work was done to satisfy the requirements. The members looked into but found issues with using the former Kmart distribution center, the Youngstown Air Reserve Station and the Youngstown Warren Regional Airport. Other community structures were ruled out because the board doesn’t believe the locations can handle the high volume of traffic.

“There’s zero effort to do anything but what they’re doing now, and it will be warming up in a month or so. By the time they’re done they can do drive-thru vaccines at churches and such. Someone even suggested the drive-in cinema,” Frenchko said.

Frenchko is asking county Auditor Adrian Biviano not to approve the spending for the building, and questions the legality of the vote taken by Cantalamessa and Fuda.

She said the motion the other commissioners made did not include dollar amounts or vendors, wasn’t on the agenda for the meeting and because it was voted on as a motion from the floor, the prosecutor did not get a chance to approve the language.

Cantalamessa said the health board needed an answer and he veered on the side of helping get “shots in arms.”

“I would just say that it’s easy to play armchair quarterback, and we can’t afford to do that right now as a board. We’re losing time. We need to listen to the people and the agencies that are dealing with this pandemic firsthand. If they need resources and they’ve made a reasonable effort to look for more cost-effective solutions — and I believe they have — then it becomes an administrative decision for our board. It comes down to, do we want to argue over semantics or do we want to be a part of the solution and getting as many people vaccinated as we possibly can?” Cantalamessa said.

In a letter asking Biviano to block related spending, Frenchko cites a legal opinion the commissioners received from the county prosecutor’s office.

“The expenditure, without following the federal guidelines, is contrary to the Board of Commissioners (Feb. 4) legal opinion, which states, ‘We urge the board to proceed with caution to use such a large portion of CARES Act funds for the proposed project without due consideration and documentation of other less costly alternatives such as other sites and temporary structures.’…The TCCHD has not met the guidelines set forth for improving real property,” she states.

“The Board of Commissioners has only received a list of three properties that were unavailable from the TCCHD, and there was no accompanying documentation furnished to support that due diligence and ‘maintain(ing) documentation’ occurred pursuant to the federal guidelines and prosecutor’s opinion (i.e. a spreadsheet with properties and lease amounts),” the letter states.

If an audit reveals the funds weren’t spent properly, it will be the commissioners on the hook to pay the money back, she said.

She said she may forward her concerns to the federal government and suggests the county set aside money in case the funds have to be repaid.

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