By Anna Jauhola
Updating COVID-19 procedures and spending down CARES money dominated the conversation at the regular Kittson County commissioners meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 20.
The board approved two annexes for the county COVID Preparedness Plan.
Annex B relates to paid leave if employees must care for ill family members, become ill themselves or care for children when schools or daycares close.
Annex C relates to business operations during the ever-changing scenarios during the pandemic.
“This section in the COVID plan was under construction, or in progress. Deb was getting questions and passing them on to me on a couple scenarios. Then a couple of people were wondering if they were eligible for family leave,” said Marily Gustafson, administrative coordinator.
When the courthouse closed its doors to the public due to COVID-19 earlier this spring, several employees worked from home because school and daycares also closed, and were paid full pay and then two-thirds pay under the guidelines at the time.
“It’s like starting all over. If you did your own thing earlier, that’s forgiven,” Gustafson said.
Now, the county must have a policy in place clearly stating how paid time off will be handled regarding COVID-related absences – this is Annex B.
If an employee is quarantined after exposure or has COVID-19 symptoms and seeks medical treatment, the county will pay them for two weeks of leave at their regular hourly rate.
Additionally, if an employee has a confirmed reason to work from home in order to care for someone who is quarantined or a child whose school or daycare is closed, the county will pay that employee two-thirds of two weeks’ pay.
Should someone need to be gone longer, and has worked for the county for at least 30 days, they can request up to 10 additional weeks of two-thirds pay. This is Expanded Family and Medical Leave, Gustafson said.
“It would be a nightmare to adjust the actual pay, so instead we’re going to calculate the two-thirds in hours,” she said.
The board also approved Annex C to specifically state when the courthouse will alter its operations as COVID numbers rise in the county.
If the county has 1 to 8 active cases in the last 14 days, the courthouse will be open and all employees at work. If there are 9 to 17 active cases, the courthouse will be open, but call-in appointments are encouraged with employees working in-house, but with department head discretion to rotate shifts. If there are greater than 18 active cases, the courthouse will be locked to the public and allow entrance only by appointment. Essential employees will work in-house, but non-essential workers will be in person at the discretion of department heads and the administrator.
As a side note, even if the active case number is above 18, the courthouse cannot close all its doors until after the election. The courthouse serves as a location for those who wish to cast their ballots for the election in person or who need to register in order to vote. Gustafson said they are thinking of alternatives in how to handle this situation, but definitely they cannot lock all the doors for people who want to come vote.
The county received $584,582 in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act money a couple months ago. Since then, the county has handed out thousands of dollars in grant money to businesses who applied and qualified. The county board has also approved thousands of dollars for some entities in need and other COVID-19 related expenses, mostly relating to technology.
Before Dec. 15, the county still has over $200,000 to spend or the board must return the remaining funds to the federal government.
Commissioner Loren Younggren said he has heard concerns about the restrictions on the application that prevented some businesses from receiving money from the county.
“I had a couple of businesses contact me that they didn’t get any CARES money because they received the (payroll protection program) money,” Younggren said. “The one business was losing a considerable amount of money every month. Their take on it with PPP is they were using it to pay their employees. That’s not business loss, they were just disappointed why they weren’t eligible because they were just helping their employees keep their jobs. Payroll shouldn’t really be a part of it.”
Northwest Community Action has been managing the grant portion of Kittson County’s CARES money. Younggren said one business person called NWCA and said they described how and why they were losing money in the comments section of the application.
“They apparently said, ‘We don’t read the comments, we just look at the numbers and went from there,’” Younggren said. “So they were disappointed in how it was handled.”
The board approved two requests for CARES funding brought forward by Emergency Manager Scot Olson. The sheriff’s office requested $3,100 to purchase electronic equipment signal boosters for each squad vehicle. These antennas will help boost cell phone signals, which will eliminate the need for the deputies or sheriff to come into the office to answer or return phone calls.
Olson also requested $18,000 for the Lancaster Fire Department to purchase six self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) masks, and a turnout gear extractor, which is a heavy-duty washing machine. The masks help filter out toxins and the extractor also washes toxins off the gear after a fire, including viruses, which qualifies them for CARES funding.
In other business, the board:
• Approved the sheriff’s department to trade in a 2011 vehicle for $6,500 at C&M Ford in Hallock for a new squad vehicle priced at $40,780, for a final cost of $34,880. This is in the 2021 budget. The commission voted 4 to 1 in favor of this, with Commissioner Darrel Johnson opposed.
• Approved the monthly county engineer’s agreement with Marshall County for November. Assistant County Engineer Keith Klegstad said he has two more applications for the position, but is waiting on more information. One is moving to Kittson County regardless of whether they are hired as engineer, and the other is from the same district.
• Set the next board meeting for Monday, Nov. 2 at 9 a.m. as the courthouse will be busy on Tuesday, Nov. 3 for the election.
By Anna Jauhola