Local official says county commissioners ‘putting in danger the health and welfare of their citizens’
hen it comes to $12.2 million in federal CARES Act money that it was sent months ago by the state treasurer for COVID-19 related expenses, the Platte County Commission has not passed any of that along to a public agency on the front line of the virus fight.
At a meeting last week, a member of the Platte County Health Department Board of Trustees had some strong words about the commission’s choice.
“I just think it’s sinful what’s going on here,” said Paula Willmarth, one of five members of the board of trustees.
Willmarth later added: “I think this county commission needs to be exposed for what they’re doing because they’re actually putting in danger the health and welfare of their citizens.”
While declining to this point to pass any of the CARES dollars to the health department, the county commission has approved many small business grants–including one as large as $226,000–to businesses who filed financial applications for grants due to financial harm related to COVID-19 and health department-ordered shutdowns of non-essential businesses earlier this year.
Platte County Presiding Commissioner Ron Schieber at a commission meeting on Sept. 7 said: “I’d like to announce that we are in the process of working with cities, schools and health departments in creating an ordinance for CARES funding. We are in the process of creating that public path,” implying that the reason the county commission hasn’t distributed any of the CARES money to public agencies is because the county commission doesn’t have a ‘public path’ ordinance in place and/or hasn’t had time to create one.
While the Platte County Commission is not the only county commission in the state to thus far withhold CARES money from its local health department, some county commissions did distribute money to health departments months ago, which would indicate a process to be modeled has been in place for quite some time.
“That’s a bald-faced lie,” Paula Willmarth, health department trustee, said of Schieber’s comments. “They’re doing everything in their power to make sure we don’t get any funding. It’s despicable.”
Earlier in the meeting, Willmarth had pointed out that among the most recent recipients of a Platte County Commission small business CARES grant was Ash Cigars. Though she didn’t elaborate further, her comment is an apparent nod to the irony of government assistance being given to a cigar company during a pandemic caused by a respiratory virus while the local health agency remains unassisted.
The county commission met again this week, and a “public path” ordinance to distribute CARES money to any public agency was not on the agenda and was not mentioned in commissioners’ closing comments.
Mary Jo Vernon, health department director, said a recent memorandum of understanding (MOU) put out by the state treasurer was “an attempt by the state to help out local health departments to encourage the flow of money” from county commissions to the health departments. She said county commissions in some other counties in the state have also been withholding money from their local health department. “It’s not just here,” Vernon said.
Some county commissions across the state–including the commissioners in Platte County–have been critical of health department decisions to order non-essential business shutdowns in the early part of the pandemic in the spring. The withholding of the CARES funding to health departments is widely seen as a political move based on that point of view.
Local health department officials said they are fine with the MOU, which dictates that health departments would be responsible for assuming the auditing responsibility of any CARES money passed their direction.
“We need to be responsible for the audit, I agree with that,” said trustee Cathy Hill.
“I don’t see any downside to signing this,” Willmarth said. “The only big stick here is the governor’s office. If the governor would say to county commissions ‘turn that money over to your local public health departments,’ they would do it. But that’s not going to happen.”
Willmarth said the MOU makes it “seem like the state is now trying to get off the hook.”
“If the state really cared about this, it would take one simple phone call from the governor’s administration saying ‘turn that money over,'” Willmarth said.
Willmarth’s bio on the health department web site indicates she has lived in Platte County since 2014, having moved back to the Kansas City area after 40 years in Jefferson City. While in Jefferson City, Willmarth worked for the Missouri Department of Social Services and the Department of Mental Health for a combined 30 years, according to the web site.
The health board asked Vernon if the department has completed a formal application for CARES funds to the county commission.
“They haven’t created a process for the official application yet,” Vernon remarked at last Tuesday’s meeting.
Vernon said several weeks ago she submitted documents to the county commissioners indicating costs the health department has incurred due to COVID-19 and related anticipated expenditures through the rest of the year. She said at the time she submitted those numbers the total was around $700,000, but the figure has increased since that time.
“Since then we’ve hired a lot more additional people,” Vernon remarked, as the health department work includes disease investigators, contact tracers, etc.