The Westmoreland County Commissioners on Thursday accepted $31.5 million in federal funding through the COVID-19 County Relief Block Grant program, and enlisted professional assistance in determining how to distribute the money.

The commissioners approved an agreement with Zelenkofske Axelrod LLC to have the firm offer its assistance in navigating eligible expenditures for the COVID-19-related grant funding.

“Until (Zelenkofske Axelrod) officially starts, we’re still in the limbo phase. We keep hearing different abilities we can use this money for, different understandings and reasonings and justifications,” commissioners chairman Sean Kertes said. “The one thing we learned, for counties and municipalities, what’s been very clear for the government side is that (the county) and municipalities — Unity Township, Ligonier Borough, whatever ones you want to use — cannot use this for lost revenue. They can’t use this for fixing any roads or filling any budget gaps or holes. It’s truly for COVID expenses. If they had to put Plexiglas up or had to buy computers or had to buy tons of gloves.”

The cost of Zelenkofske Axelrod’s services, capped at $200,000, according to the commissioners, will be covered through the block grant funds.

“It is up to the commissioners to decide how to use their (Zellenkofske Axelrod’s) expertise. We intentionally sought out an agreement that had flexibility since there is no framework for these acts and funds,” commissioner Doug Chew said in an email to the Bulletin. “...Zelenkofske Axelrod has been contracted by a few counties to assist. Some of those assistance ways are: developing applications, developing online resources for applicants, managing the auditing process of funds spent, etc.”

The COVID-19 County Relief Block Grant program is administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to counties that aren’t directly funded through the federal government. Sixty of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties meet that criteria, according to the DCED.

The DCED website’s page outlining information about the COVID-19 County Relief Block Grant program lists the following eligible uses for grant funds:

  • Offsetting the cost of direct county response, planning & outreach efforts related to COVID-19;
  • Small Business Grant Programs to support businesses with fewer than 100 employees & to support businesses and other entities that are primarily engaged in the tourism industry;
  • Grant programs to support the following entities for costs related to assisting businesses during the COVID-19 Disaster Emergency: CEDOs, LDDs, IRCs, SBDCs, EDCs;
  • Assistance to cities, boroughs, incorporated towns or townships located within eligible counties for response and planning efforts related to COVID-19;
  • Behavioral Health & Substance use disorder treatment services;
  • Nonprofit assistance programs for entities that are an exempt organizations under section 501(C)(3) OR 501(C)(19) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986;
  • Broadband internet deployment with priority given to unserved or underserved areas.

Kertes said the county is hoping to be able to use the grant funds to cover overtime costs during the pandemic, and the commissioners plan to be conservative with the money in case the county must re-implement COVID-19 safety measures like temperature checks at county buildings.

“This money is also for a second wave,” he said. “If we have to add anything back into what we have to do, if something would happen or Governor Wolf would shut us down again and we have to put these protocols back in place, we’re going to draw down that money again to help us out to bring temperature takers back.”

Westmoreland County Director of Financial Administration Meghan McCandless said the county had about $700,000 in what was coded in payroll as “pandemic pay,” and so far in 2020 the county has spent roughly $430,000 on COVID-19 related items.

Small businesses will eventually be able to apply to the county seeking funding from the grant, although the specific mechanism for awarding funds to businesses is being developed, Kertes said.

“Businesses follow a different tier because of the way the law is written. We need clarification before we make any assumptions on that. Zelenkofske Axelrod and their auditors and attorneys they’re bringing to the table are working with other counties and they have a true perspective of how this is already working. The people they have working with these bigger counties, it’s going to be very beneficial to us,” Kertes said. “We’re going to work out how we’re going to handle this with a grant recipient process. They’re going to apply like a typical grant process with the name of the business, reasons and justifications. If they meet the criteria, they’ll receive what they’re asking, but once again there will be restrictions on what they can do. We can’t just give a business $40,000. It has to have justifications of what they need.”

In addition to the $31,508,670 in COVID-19 County Relief Block Grant funds, the commissioners approved accepting $28,454 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) funds for child welfare services, as well as participation in the 2020 Pennsylvania CARES Rent Relief Program. The commissioners also approved applying for $187,545 in Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Relief Program funds through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

In other business, the commissioners approved paying $50,000 to settle a federal lawsuit alleging Alyssa Nuss, a former employee of the Recorder of Deeds Office, was fired for political reasons after Republican Recorder of Deeds Frank Schiefer took over the office from Democrat Tom Murphy in January. Another similar federal lawsuit is pending.

Following the meeting, the commissioners expressed frustration at paying out another settlement in a lawsuit against an elected official in the county.

“We’re sending a letter to all of our row officers and elected officials telling them we want to hold them accountable,” Kertes said.

The county has paid out more than $500,000 in lawsuit settlements and legal fees in recent years from lawsuits against elected officials.

“We don’t have unlimited resources, and I hope our colleagues take responsibility for that personally,” Chew added. “Maybe it will be an incentive to do that because they are footing the bill.”

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