By Rick Hiduk
(Exclusive to EndlessMtnLifestyles.com readers)
“We don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t know when it will end,” Wyoming County commissioner Rick Wilbur said on Tuesday in reference to the long-term closure of businesses deemed non-essential by Gov. Wolf and a general stay-at-home order for the entire state.
The Wyoming County Commissioners held another virtual meeting on April 14, as the courthouse in Tunkhannock is still mostly closed to the public. Among the topics discussed related to the COVID-19 pandemic were the functionality of courthouse and other county offices under stricter safety guidelines and the furloughing of some county employees. All three commissioners were present, as were the solicitor and chief clerk. Other county officials participated remotely.
As of that morning, the PA Department of Health (DOH) map of coronavirus cases indicated that Wyoming County’s number was holding steady at 12. County EMA director Gene Dziak said, however, that one of those people who tested positive was found to actually reside in another county. The county’s number had been revised to 11 by day’s end.
According to Wilbur, the business of courthouse continues and every department is open with managers in place. Most county-level services can be done online or via the mail,he noted, such as purchasing a dog license or paying a fine. One limitation he cited is that the prothonotary cannot currently issue passports because one must be present to do so.
The commissioners approved the purchase of two digital thermometers using a grant from the county’s insurance carrier. The security guards at the entrances will take temperatures of anyone entering the building.
Wilbur repeated warnings from the previous week’s meeting that, overall, the county is suffering financially, in large part because of delayed revenue from property taxes. The payment due date and the penalties for late payments have both been extended by two months, and many county residents are taking advantage of the offer.
In the meantime, the county has continued to pay all employees at a cost of approximately $250,000 per pay period, as well as their health insurance. Payroll comprises 75 percent of the budget, Wilbur explained. The commissioners had previously discussed taking out a short term loan to get them over the hurdle, and Wilbur added, “We do have some Act 13 funds that we can borrow from if we need to.”
The commissioners were in agreement that some some employees will have to be laid off, starting April 17 until pandemic has reached its end. The commissioners were planning to meet with department heads on Wednesday to determine who could be let go, while others might get reduced work schedules.
With federal stimulus checks, unemployment compensation, plus the extra $600 per pay period, Wilbur noted, some employees will make more by staying at home. The county will continue to pay health insurance for all full-time employees.
The commissioners are continuing to work with Sen. Lisa Baker and Rep. Karen Boback to force the DOH to release additional information by county as to how many people have been tested, how many negative tests there were, and how many results are pending. “They have it for everyone by county, but they are not giving it to us,” Wilbur stated. “Were there 450 that were negative? People want to know that.”
According to Dziak, state health secretary Rachel Levine has said that EMS can get that information through the CAD system, but the county’s isn’t designed to do that kind of work.
On the topic of help for small businesses that have been affected by the shut-down, commissioner Tom Henry reported that the commissioners have been working with Trehab executive director Dennis Phelps and other agencies on financial assistance in the form of grants. Details about the Small Business Assistance Fund were released later on Tuesday via social media and will appear in local papers in the coming days. (Read about it here: http://www.endlessmtnlifestyles.com/?p=15995 )
Non-COVID Topics Discussed
The commissioners made three proclamations, declaring the county’s observation of “811 Safe Digging Month,” “Child Abuse Prevention Month,” and “National Public Safety Telecommunication Week” from April 12 to 18. On the latter, the board gave virtual “high-fives” to 911 director Jeff Porter, who was participating remotely. “Even prior to the pandemic, you have always been there for the county,” Henry said of Porter and his staff. Porter, in turn, thanked the commissioners for their continued support.
Gene Dziak provided some details about the EMA transitioning from a Swift Reach notification system to a new one called Code Red that is available to the county through its association with the Northeast Task Force, a regional consortium of EMAs.
Messages that can be sent simultaneously to all county employees via the system range from closure of the courthouse due to weather conditions to serious industrial incidents. The previous system was nearly obsolete, Dziak noted. EMA staff is currently testing Code Red and will complete the transition as soon as possible.
The commissioners ratified a resolution that has already funneled more than a $1-million in state grant money through the county for a restoration project at the old train station in Nicholson. Commissioner Henry encouraged residents to check out the progress at the historic building when leisurely travel is revived. “The project is really moving along,” he remarked.
The county only has a 37 percent response rate so far for completing the census. Wilbur urged people who currently have extra time on their hands complete the questionnaire received in the mail or go online to make sure that everyone in their households are counted.
The commissioners will conduct a work session on Thursday, April 16 at 9 am that can be accessed on the Zoom videoconferencing platform or via phone. Interested readers may contact the commissioners office for details.