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Mon, Preston county commissioners plan ahead after receiving funds

By Ben Conley and Kathy Plum

The checks are in hand.

Now what?

That’s the question both the Monongalia and Preston county commissions are asking after receiving $100,000 checks on Friday to fund Gov. Jim Justice’s “hero pay” block grants.

In a letter accompanying the voucher, Justice explains the money is to be used to help offset the “extraordinary costs that your county and the municipalities within your county are incurring for the first responders and true soldiers right on the front lines of this pandemic.”

 Justice points out that decisions on how the money can best be allocated should be made at the local level before noting allocations must be for purposes allowable under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, including:

  • Necessary expenditures incurred due to the COVID-19 public health emergency
  • Expenditures not accounted for in the county/municipality budget most recently approved as of March 27
  • Expenditures incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30

The letter notes that the funds shouldn’t be used to backfill county or city budgets, but to cover things like first responder overtime, emergency operations center costs or the purchase of protective equipment.

The question now falls to the counties to figure out how best to solicit, weigh and grant requests for these funds.

Monongalia County Commission President Ed Hawkins said the county began fielding questions about the money the day after Justice first mentioned the “hero pay” initiative during his April 10 COVID-19 briefing.

“Well, we’ve got the money. So we’re going to have to come to a decision as to how best to do this, because obviously we’re not going to get that direction from the governor,” Hawkins said.

Preston County Administrator Kathy Mace said the counties would deposit the money in a special account set up by the state auditor’s office.

“There’s a lot to be considered here on two fronts,” Mace said. “It’s more complicated than just an allocation because it has to cover several months and the municipalities that are involved.”

Ultimately, the counties will have to provide the state an itemized accounting of how the money is doled out.

Mace reached out to Congressman David McKinley’s office for additional guidance on how best to allocate the funds. In turn, McKinley Field Representative Wendy Madden reached out to the governor’s office.

Madden asked if counties are expected to allocate funds directly to individuals or to departments for further dispersal.

According to the response from the governor’s office, “The decision on how much to give each first responder who is working on the front line is also up to each individual county commission.  How much each individual receives will depend on the number of first responders a particular county and municipality may have.”

It also says Justice is encouraging counties to add to or match the block grant funds available for allocation.

Hawkins said there has been no discussion about matching the funds as of yet. Preston County, which hasn’t discussed how to distribute the funds, recently froze many expenditures in the current budget and will be working with a smaller overall budget in the 2020-21 budget year.

Hawkins went on to say that the way this has been handled has left counties in an awkward position.

“As you might expect, as soon as the governor said ‘hero pay,’ a lot of people started calling and asking how money will be spent,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. I’m not saying it’s been handled badly, but it’s certainly not been handled with any degree of clarification.”

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