Governments rush to spend relief funds

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Officials purchase body cameras and cleaning supplies, pay for salaries as deadline approaches

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Ouray County officials are working to spend more than $400,000 in federal coronavirus relief funds, including purchasing body cameras, technology and personal protective equipment before the chance to spend the money expires.

The funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act must be spent by Dec. 30, is provided as reimbursements after the money is spent, and can only be used for “necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency,” according to terms and conditions sent to the county from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs in July.

The county, city of Ouray and town of Ridgway agreed to divide up the local allocation between the three jurisdictions. The city and the town each received about $80,000, while the county received just over $220,000. Another $42,000 was set aside for contingencies.

The three are sharing the $46,680 cost of hiring consulting firm Economic & Planning Systems, Inc. to develop a long- and short-term economic resiliency plan. The document, according to the company’s contract, will include an analysis of the current situation and guidance on how to “make the community more resilient to changes in the economy and shocks that may occur in the future.”

Some of the funds are being used for purchases to meet existing needs, including eight body cameras for the sheriff’s office.

Sheriff Justin Perry put together a “purpose paper” explaining how the cameras could be used for COVID-related contact tracing and keeping officers safe during the pandemic, which County Administrator Connie Hunt said she’ll use when applying for the reimbursement.

“The cameras can capture and assist in immediate contact tracing if a deputy comes into contact with an individual who has tested positive for COVID,” Hunt said at an October Board of County Commissioners meeting, reading from the department’s justification.

The county is required to purchase and use the cameras by July 2023, under Senate Bill 217, which the state legislature passed in June. Perry said at the meeting he believes using the coronavirus relief money is “a very effective way for us to utilize those funds and also acquire those required cameras for the organization.”

“When we respond to group settings, it is very difficult to try to separate that, but with the camera system, it captures everybody on there who a deputy comes in contact with, so it further preserves the safety of that deputy plus the organization itself,” he said.

If any of the purchases, such as the body cameras, are not ultimately approved for reimbursement, the money will have to come out of the general fund budget, Hunt said.

Ridgway and the county have both submitted their first reimbursement requests, which were both approved, and Ouray Acting City Administrator Melissa Drake said last week she planned to request more than $30,000 in reimbursement by Nov. 6.

The first request for the county was about $55,000, and largely covered PPE that had been ordered from March to October, as well as the cost of employing Heidi Pankow as a temporary public information officer, Hunt said.

Ridgway’s largest costs included PPE and hand sanitizer stations, Town Manager Preston Neill said.

Other decisions were made to address digital needs due to the pandemic, including technology and website upgrades.

Ouray’s initial request for reimbursement includes some telecommuting equipment, as employees are still alternating working from home and in-person to reduce contacts, Drake said, and Ridgway used some of its money to purchase laptops and other equipment for people working remotely, Neill said.

The county also budgeted for cameras, monitors and microphones to make remote work and meetings easier, as well as improvements to the county website and software to resolve technology issues remotely.

Other potential uses have been shelved in favor of stockpiling more PPE, including a proposed grant program that would have provided $1,300 to local businesses for COVID-related expenses.

The county has also ordered messaging signs to convey information about COVID-related news and two types of cones to be used for traffic control at testing sites or other settings where people need to be separated.

The county is also spending CARES Act funds on a rapid test machine, which costs about $5,000 in addition to tests for the machine. This may help speed up results and responses to cases, though the quicker turnaround time comes with higher potential for false negatives. Negative results will require a follow-up nasal swab test sent to a lab, because the rapid tests miss about 20 percent of positive cases.

Ouray is also spending money to move the city resources director and HR manager’s offices to the first floor of the Visitors’ Center, which Drake said will help with spacing and social distancing. They’re still working on getting network connectivity to that building she said.

Both the city and county are planning to buy air purifiers for some offices without sufficient ventilation, Hunt and Drake said.

Schools

School districts also received funding through the CARES Act, which Ouray and Ridgway achool districts have used for paying salaries, supporting virtual learning and purchasing cleaning supplies.

The schools receive money through two funding streams: the Coronavirus Relief Fund, which must be spent by the end of 2020, and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, which can be used throughout the spring semester. Unlike the municipal funding, most of the money was available to schools up front, rather than as reimbursements.

Ridgway School District was awarded “pretty close to $300,000 that we’re looking to use,” and about half of that is already accounted for, Superintendent Susan Lacy said.

“We’re applying as much as we can to our nurse,” she said. “We used to have a nurse one day a week, and one of the things we did with COVID was make the decision to have a full-time nurse.”

Ouray, which previously had a nurse budgeted for only four hours a week, has also increased the position using the federal money, first to 12 hours and recently to 20 hours. That will return to 12 hours in the spring unless more federal funding is available or the school board approves spending the extra money, Superintendent Tod Lokey said.

Districts can use some of the money to pay salaries for increased instructional time, calculated by comparing the fall semester to last spring.

During remote learning at the end of the last school year, Ouray School was offering “about four hours” of instructional time each day, Lokey said. With in-person classes back in session, that’s closer to about 61/2 hours, so some of the CARES Act money can be used for part of teachers’ salaries for that additional time. Ouray can spend up to about $163,000 of the federal money for that purpose, though it can’t be used after December.

Other costs include about $45,000 for professional development, $io,000 for Chromebooks and about $10,000 for remote learning supports, including the online learning management systems the district is using this year. Because the district had already been working toward a one-to-one computer program, they didn’t have to spend a large portion of the money on technology, Lokey said.

In addition to spending on salaries, Ridgway has paid about $30,000 to Colorado Digital Learning Solutions, the state-supported virtual school.

‘Our entire high school math program is being cotaught by CDLS,” Lacy said, and some students opted for the fully-online program instead of returning to school in-person.

Both districts said previously they’d likely use some of the money for their ongoing staff testing through COVIDCheck Colorado, but the Telluride Foundation is covering that cost instead. That’s leaving more available for maintenance and cleaning supplies, PPE and other needs that have come up throughout the semester.

Deadline

The tight deadline for using the funds has present-ed challenges, especially as locals compete with other cities and counties for the same supplies, and as needs are likely to continue beyond the end of this year. Some are hoping for an extension on the current funding, or another round of federal funding this spring.

“I have more needs than the amount of money that they gave us,” Lacy said. “We’re feeling a lot of pressure. We have to have it all figured out by the 30th of December, and the reality is these costs are not going to stop by the 3oth of December. We really need more CRF funds.”

She said the smaller amount of money still available this spring will be taken up quickly with the nurse’s salary and CDLS payment.

Ouray will likewise use that money for salaries for its nurse and custodian, and for the online learning programs, Lokey said.

He’s hopeful additional money will be available this spring, though that depends on congressional action.

Ouray County Emergency Manager Glenn Boyd said some of the PPE he’s looking to buy isn’t currently available, raising concerns about whether the purchases will be complete before the December deadline.

“Most companies don’t charge you until it’s actually shipped,” he said. “If stuff’s backordered, we kind of can’t spend the money at that point in time.” Ordering huge quantities of supplies - including $12,000 worth of masks - is a challenge, especially when everyone else is trying to stock up at the same time.

If the purchases aren’t completed, “we would just lose that funding if we don’t spend it by then,” Boyd said, unless the deadline is extended.

The decision to spend about $25,000 on PPE wasn’t made until October, after elected officials throughout the county considered and then rejected multiple other plans, including an ambassador program to promote mask compliance and a recognition program for businesses. Last month, Boyd was asked to develop criteria for a “small business emergency grant fund,” which would have made CARES money available to businesses for expenses including cleaning supplies, outdoor heating and rent and utility payments while operating at reduced capacity. All but one of the 22 businesses who gave input on the proposed program said the grants would be beneficial, according to Boyd.

Montrose County and Delta County both allocated some of their funds for a similar grant program, which Region io is administering. Applications for those grants, which are up to $10,000, closed in late October, but demand was lower than anticipated, Region io Business Loan Fund Director Dan Scinto said.

Ouray County decided to instead spend the money on PPE after concerns were raised about which businesses would receive the grants and how they would be selected. Instead, elected officials decided to purchase items that could be universally used at any time.

Hunt said she expects that the county will be able to spend the majority of its allocation by the December deadline.

“We would love to have an extension because we are currently rushing,” Drake said. “These things don’t happen overnight, and it takes a while to figure out what you need to do first and find a contractor who can do it. We’re doing our best to get it all done by December 30, but if the extension occurred, it would give us a little breathing room.”

“It’s use it or lose it,” Neill said at a Ridgway Town Council meeting in October, answering a question about the funds. “But I’m not of the mindset like, oh we need to find whatever it is to spend the money on.” Council members gave input at that meeting about possible purchases, including more technology needs and additional PPE, which the town and city are working with the county to obtain.

And while the money is set to expire on Dec. 30, the months that follow continue to present unknowns.

“It definitely makes it hard when we don’t know what’s going to transpire in 2021 and beyond,” Neill said.