Athens County, alongside the 87 other Ohio counties, received a fair portion of CARES Act funding — $1.5 million — which can be used as relief funding for municipalities in Athens County, as well as county-driven departments, such as the Sheriff’s Office.
The funding is specified for unexpected expenditures incurred by COVID-19 pandemic effects that hit after March 1, 2020. These expenditures do not cover loss of revenue, but would be accept items like hand sanitizer and extra-hours needed for COVID precautions, such as night-time cleaning.
One aspect of COVID-19 life that Commissioner Chris Chmiel hoped CARES funding could be used for is upgrading local internet connections. However, projects would need to be completed by Dec. 31, making the task difficult.
Auditor Jill Thompson noted that it could be done through a sub-grant, if the county worked quickly.
Commissioner Charlie Adkins noted the 2021 county budget is already projected to have a significant shortfall, due to a loss of revenue.
“Before we spend money out of our pockets that we may not have next year, I think we need to have a discussion for how much money the county is going to need to go forward next year,” he said.
Auditor Thompson said more information has been filtering down to the county level from the federal government, and expect more information through the end of the week. However, despite this, the county’s records are still showing a “significant” shortfall to the upcoming year’s budget.
“We’re still looking at more than a $2 million shortfall,” she confirmed. “I think our goal is going to be to qualify as much of that CARES Act money in bulk.”
She said qualifying the federal dollars will give the county management some flexibility in actually spending. She noted that she fears there are many people seeking funding that will not receive the necessary funds.
“I want to make sure that we are not putting ourselves in a situation where we’re funding projects for the right reason, but will end up laying off a bunch of people next year,” she said. “I don’t think we’re going to meet our revenue estimate for next year.”
“We’ve got to take care of ourselves first,” Commission President Lenny Eliason agreed.
Thompson advocated for nailing down the county’s guidance on the grant funding, noting that many of the township’s fiscal officers have expressed concern in utilizing or returning the funds due to a lack of experience with grants.
Zach Saunders, assistant prosecutor in the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office, which also acts as the county’s legal counsel, will be involved with ensuring the townships and other municipalities know how to handle the funding.
The townships will be instructed by the County Commissioners and the Auditor’s office to sub-grant funds that will not be utilized by the municipality back to the county.