County Dept. Heads Detail Efforts Taken On COVID-19

Kosciusko County Courthouse.

County department heads related their experiences with COVID-19 protocols at Thursday’s county council meeting.

County offices are just reopening to the public after being closed since mid-March following state executive orders.

Most emotional was Sheriff Kyle Dukes who talked about an employee who tested positive for the virus two weeks ago. The individual has been in strict isolation the last two weeks and has had two negative test results for COVID-19 in a row. The person will return to work Monday.

Dukes said his men were under an extreme amount of pressure while the call volume has been extremely low. He imagines the calls will start coming in as people get together more.

The jail population stands at 226 inmates with eight moving on to state prisons when they reopen to incoming offenders.

Without access to the news, the inmates didn’t understand the sudden quarantines and the policy of no visitors, chaplains or instructors allowed in the jail. Dukes said they were very confused about the situation.

Jail meals are being affected by breaks in the food chain and orders aren’t being filled when the distribution trucks arrive. Dukes said he has three very inventive and experienced cooks making do with that they do have. Meat is in the shortest supply.

Front office personnel have been working two at a time while other employees stay home.

Steve Moriarty, county highway superintendent, anticipates a wrench in the motor vehicle highway fund which will probably get cut by 50% because of travel restrictions. The account is funded by gasoline sales tax.

He plans to work around the anticipated money flow problem by cutting paving work and turing to patching the roads. Planned equipment purchases will be cut, too.

Clerk Ann Torpy said her staff is cut to four people currently and the employees at home are on two-thirds pay.

Of her budgeted $5,000 for postage, $3,300 has been spent because there have been 2,065 requests for mail-in ballots. In the last two elections, she had 306 requests in 2018 and 161 in 2016.

Polling locations and workers have also been reduced from 69 poll boards to 24.

Council President Jon Garber asked what would happen if someone who received a ballot by mail decided to vote in person. Torpy said the mailed ballot had to be turned in at the polling place, otherwise they wouldn’t be allowed to vote.

Bob Weaver, health department administrator, said when tests for the virus were available in mid-March, the county had 25 positive results. These individuals stayed home and recovered. Eight people were hospitalized and they recovered from the illness, too. So far, one individual has had a coronavirus-related death.

The county currently has 55 people testing positive for the virus.

Weaver said the office’s two nurses were tracking contacts of the people with positive results to keep the virus from spreading. People who had contact with those individuals were advised to stay home and wear a mask if they went out in public. He noted the state department of health has hired an outside company to track contacts and they will have representatives here.

Councilwoman Kim Cates asked if health workers in other counties have been as diligent and Weaver said they probably weren’t.

Weaver and environmental scientist Neal Brown have been delivering personal protective equipment to the seven area nursing homes for the last seven weeks, a daily task. He said there is a supply of masks and gloves, enough to extend the items to dentist’s offices. Surgical and N95 masks are still in demand.

From the Extension Office, Kelly Heckaman, director; Jaclyn Franks, health and human sciences; and Melinda Wise, 4-H youth development gave reports on their recent virtual programs.

Ed Rock, the county emergency management director, said his department has helped support the health department and made sure all the first responders have personal protection equipment.

He noted that FEMA is expected to reimburse COVID-19-related claims 75% and he’s set up an account for the county.

County Administrator Marsha McSherry said she’s been looking at the CARES Act and keeping track of expenses. She reminded the council members the act extends to the end of the year.

She said she will make sure there are enough masks for court officials and there is a jury trial on June 9 and 10. Jurors will wear masks, too.

The maintenance department is sanitizing regularily, making sure everything is wiped down throughout the day.

Treasurer Rhonda Helser said her girls return to the office next week and she doesn’t expect a reduction in county tax collections. Residents have been very good about paying their invoices.

Kosciusko Economic Development Corporation CEO Alan Tio invited the council to join the small business relief program. KEDCo offers 0% interest loans up to $10,000 and 2% to 3% interest loans up to $20,000 to small business owners to retain employee and recover from the current crisis. He said the city of Warsaw has invested $100,000 for city business owners. As the money is returned, it will go right back to the city. Office of Community and Rural Affairs has provided $245,000.

Councilwoman Joni Truex said she thought the OCRA loans were forgiveable, that that money came in as a grant.

Tio said in this situation it was OK with OCRA that the funds were offered as loans. So far there have been 20 applications with four approvals from $8,000 to $10,000.

Truex said the commissioners would make that decision and she made a motion to deny the county’s participation. After some discussion, her motion failed 3-4 with Truex, Doug Heinisch and Mike Long voting to deny participation.

Councilman Ernie Wiggins made a motion to table the request and bring it up at the next meet, which was approved 4-3, with Truex, Heinisch and Long voting nay.

Auditor Michelle Puckett said the county had until Oct. 31 instead of Sept. 30 to approve budgets, and the council approved the extension. They’ll hear from department heads in August, schedule a public hearing and adopt the budget at the Oct. 8 meeting.

Puckett also wanted to know if the members planned to meet in the Justice Building basement meeting room again next month, and Garber said yes as he took in the nodding heads of fellow council.

The meeting room was chosen to maintain social distancing for the council, staff members and department heads and members of the media attending. Puckett asked if they wanted to advertise a move to the Justice Building for the remainder of the year, and the council members said they would let her know on a month-by-month basis.

Cates said it was time for the county to start presenting live virtual meetings and asked that the issue be added to next month’s agenda and provided for in the upcoming budget.

Wiggins said Warsaw Mayor Joe Thallemer is doing a great job with the city’s live meetings and weekly press conferences.

Cates said their first responsibility was to the public and people could be watching them right now.

Truex wondered if the council could collaborate with the city and perhaps use their council chambers.

McSherry commented that the improvements or addition of audio-visual equipment would be a county commissioners decision.