Commission Looks at CARES Act In Short Meeting

By MARK EVANS

mevans@stegenherald.com

Discussion of the Caronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act took up much of the Ste. Genevieve County Commission’s abbreviated Dec. 23 meeting.

The commission met for about two hours that Wednesday, since the courthouse was closed on Christmas Eve.

The commission was feeling the stress of not knowing how things would play out in Washington, D.C. between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

The $2,099,323 in CARES Act money the county received came with some strings attached. One notable string was that it must be spent by Dec. 31 or returned.

One of two bills just passed by Congress would have included legislation to extend that deadline into 2021. That would be welcome relief for the commission and the county clerk’s office.

Auditors have been going over money spent from the CARES Act and more auditing will come, down the line. Presiding Commissioner Garry Nelson said that auditors are “picking it apart already,” demanding justification for purchases.

Initially there were four pages of instructions as to what the money could and could not be used for. That ballooned to 23 pages of often contradictory “Do’s and don’ts,” in Nelson’s words.

Most of the voluminous paperwork falls on associate clerk Michele Gatzemeyer. With the November general election and its many unusual features just completed, Gatzemeyer and others in the clerk’s office have had their hands full. County Clerk Sue Wolk referred to the election process as “an all hands on deck” situation, which kept Gatzemeyer from throwing herself as deeply into the morass of CARES Act paperwork.

A reprieve from the Dec. 31 deadline would be a huge relief. It was one the commissioners thought they had received. Word, however, that President Donald Trump was considering using a  pocket veto to let the bill die, frustrated them. (The president wound up signing it

The CARES Act itself has been a troublesome thing to deal with.

“It’s been a bittersweet thing,” Nelson said. “In the aftermath, it’s been a big pain. I’m not saying we regret it. It’s helped keep the kids in school, it’s helped keep the jail safe and it’s allowed Heavenly Hope to do a  lot of good.”

Money from the act helped county schools add various protective measures and cleaning supplies to make blended and live learning feasible this fall. Meanwhile, Sheriff Gary Stolzer is using CARES Act money to help build an isolation ward, so new inmates ay be quarantined when initially received. Heavenly Hope used money to buy a food delivery van, helping reduce to misery of many families in need.

The commission approved two additional requests. One was for $1,917 for St. Joseph School in Zell for special cleaning towels and other sanitary supplies.

Second district Commissioner Joe Gettinger remarked that St. Joseph  has been “doing a good job” keeping students safe in the pandemic.

“All the schools in the county have,” Nelson replied.

They also approved a $4,839 request from the city of Ste. Genevieve for hand sanitizer, wireless mouses and other equipment to improve the quality of virtual meetings the Board of Aldermen and various boards that meet in the City Hall building, thus making more virtual participation by members feasible.

Nelson noted that attorney Ivan Schraeder had reviewed and approved both requests.

The commissioners have been careful not to give out any CARES Act requests not approved by Schraeder, since the county would be responsible for paying back any money that was later rejected by auditors.

HEALTH DIRECTOR IS DISCUSSED

Although Jennifer Mueller, newly named interim director of the county health department, was unable to attend the meeting as  hoped, her appointment was discussed.

The commissioners agreed that Mueller with 27 years experience in the health field, was an outstanding choice.

Nelson returned to a question he has posed before: Is the commission or the health board ultimately responsible for appointing a director?

“I’ve read as much as I can on the statutes,” Nelson said, noting that Revised State Statute 192.620 says the county commission “may” appoint a county health officer.

“It says ‘may,’ not ‘shall,’” Nelson said.

He has argued before that he doesn’t feel the commissioners are qualified to hire health department directors. That should fall to the county health board he has said.

“I don’t think the county commission should be micromanaging the health board,” he said.

That said, they have no problem with Mueller assuming the job. Just as in the case of Jeanette Wood, he feels it would be superfluous for the commission to “appoint” the person the health board has already approved for the job.

“She’s a good choice,” Gettinger said. “I’ve known Jenny a long time.”

“She’s very professional,” Gatzemeyer added.

“The most important thing is, she’s qualified,” Nelson said. “No statutes are being broken.”

In Wood’s case, her previous membership on the health board made her ineligible to take the position, in the minds of Schraeder and Prosecuting Attorney Wayne Williams, and led to her resignation.

They expressed confidence that Mueller can straighten out the office. Health department revenue, nelson said, is likely to be way down in the short term because billing has not been taken care of, with some billing deadlines having been missed Some contracts may have to be reapplied for because of that.

Nelson stressed that Mueller will have “all the support we can give her.”