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Pandemic construction expenses, new testing site on list of approved expenses for county’s $2.56 million grant

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — County commissioners on Wednesday adopted plans to spend a $2.56 million grant from the state for COVID-19 relief that includes an additional testing site and the use of architects to determine each municipality’s COVID-19 capital expenses.

The grant comes from state government as part of its Coronavirus Relief Fund, established in the CARES Act. North Carolina’s “2020 COVID-19 Recovery Act” allocated a total of $150 million in funding for all 100 counties, with the funds being disbursed based on each county’s 2019 population estimates.

Of the total grant, $1.35 million has been designated for “general government,” which would include architects who visit each municipality to evaluate what should be constructed and how much of the funds should be allocated to meet COVID-19 needs. Other allocations include general human resources, health department expenses, information technology, emergency services and elections. But those allocations totaled more than $3 million, leading to a shortfall of $484,160 in grant funds.

The funds are allowed to be spent on items like medical expenses for testing, public telemedicine capabilities as well as expenses in public hospitals, clinics and temporarily established medical facilities. Among other items, funds can also be used for public health expenses such as protective equipment, disinfection of public areas and facilities, public safety measures, payroll expenses for public safety or health care employees, food delivery services, distance learning, paid sick and family and medical leave for public employees, maintaining prisons and protecting the homeless.

One designated expense from the Health Department includes a COVID-19 testing contract with Mako Medical in the amount of $212,500. The funds would allow the county to test up to 2,500 citizens in addition to newly established testing sites throughout the county. Test windows would be 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Mondays at West End Plaza beginning next week.

A total of $300,000 of the grant has been designated for municipal renovations and construction that helps eliminate or reduce the transmission of COVID-19. An interlocal agreement between the county and municipalities would result in county government managing the construction and reviewing architectural plans. Towns will be required to provide receipts with justification of its spending. Additionally, the county is authorized to deny requests if necessary.

“We’re going to do everything we can to apply (the funds) in the strictest sense,” said County Manager Aaron Church, who added that commissioners have “the sole authority” to supervise what’s being spent or set parameters for how the funds are spent.

The funding is allocated to counties since they’ve shouldered much of the COVID-19 financial burden, said Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds. He added that counties can choose to allocate some funds to municipalities, but the county is ultimately responsible and liable for how the funds are spent.

Commissioner Craig Pierce expressed concern with supervising funds dispersed to the local municipalities, adding that he has “a personal problem being held liable” for municipalities in the event they don’t appropriate funds in ways that comply with the state’s requirements.

Edds echoed Pierce’s concern, but added that the municipalities won’t actually receive the check for COVID-19 expenses.

While the plan allocates funding based on each municipality’s population, Church said commissioners can alter those amounts. Pierce said he’d rather allow architects to determine financial needs.

A total of $600,000 has been designated to reimburse employees who have dedicated all or most of their efforts mitigating COVID-19, including COVID-19-related sick and family medical leave expenses.

Pierce also expressed concern with the proposed plan spending more than the amount of grant funding, which would result in the county putting up some of its own money.

Edds said the strategy behind the initial inclusion of the shortfall amount is to indicate a need for funds that exceed the grant total. He added that the county doesn’t intend to spend its own money, and that the current plan includes estimates at this point. Church said the county could be eligible for future FEMA reimbursement, but is being asked to use this grant first.

The final vote from the board was to approve the plan for the funds as long as Church and/or Assistant County Manager Leslie Heidrick balanced expenses and grant funding before submitting it to the state to avoid using the county’s own money. Additionally, commissioners called for an update of the funds at every upcoming commissioners meeting, as well as the ability to approve requests for use of the funds from local municipalities.

The board must submit its plan for use of the COVID-19 funds to the state by Monday. Church added that the state may provide feedback. Some parts can be denied if the state doesn’t deem it appropriate under the spending stipulations.

Also at the meeting:

  • Commissioners approved a request to create two new custodial positions in the county as a result of the increased volume of needs due to COVID-19. The total annual cost for these positions is $78,404, which includes wages, benefits and supplies/equipment. The request’s approval was necessary as the county is currently in the midst of a hiring freeze.
  • Commissioners set a virtual 2020-21 proposed budget work session for 1 p.m. on Monday. The board will then host its 3 p.m. regular meeting virtually, then recess before holding a virtual public hearing at 6 p.m. for the proposed budget. Speakers at the public hearing will be allowed three minutes to address the board. Additionally, the public can submit comments during the meeting or via email at budget.hearing@rowancountync.gov. Emailed comments will be accepted until June 5 at 5 p.m.
  • Commissioners also gave final approval to tax incentives for “Project Lake” and the FY 2020-21 HOME Funding Action Plan, both of which were previously approved at the May 18 regular meeting.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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