Costs adding up for Crow Wing County in COVID-19 response
The single greatest purchase expense comes from PPE — such as masks, gowns, gloves and thermometers — totaling $102,368.49 so far.
The coronavirus pandemic has cost Crow Wing County government more than $600,000 and counting.
A list compiled by the county’s finance department Wednesday, April 22, shows the direct and indirect costs associated with the impact of the novel coronavirus. The analysis includes purchases made by the county as well as revenue impacts, such as $250,000 lost due to the lack of state prisoners in the county jail and the so far unknown declines in county sales tax and property taxes.
Personal protective equipment, Plexiglas barriers, hand sanitizer and technology for employees working from home are among the purchases in the past month since a local emergency was declared. A number of those purchases were from local businesses: KN95 masks from health care equipment company Ocelco, fabric face masks from The Teehive, hand sanitizer from Rosewood Emporium, PPE from Brainerd Medical Supply and North Central Medical Supply, Plexiglas from Gull Lake Glass and a semitrailer from TCBX Trucking. The county also patronized big box stores in Baxter for items such as headsets and cleaning supplies.
The single greatest purchase expense comes from PPE — such as masks, gowns, gloves and thermometers — totaling $102,368.49 so far. The county has also collected donations of these items. As of Tuesday, more than 30,000 pairs of gloves were in the county’s inventory, along with 24,362 N95 or KN95 masks and 5,800 procedure masks. Also in the government’s possession are 200 various sized bottles of sanitizer and 14 additional gallons; 133 gowns; 153 pairs of boots; and 432 pairs of protective glasses. County Administrator Tim Houle noted inventory figures are very fluid as hundreds of items are being distributed regularly to first responders and others who must continue face-to-face contact with the public in their daily work.
Personnel costs associated with front line workers directly working on COVID-19 response total $105,000. Information technology costs — such as equipment for working from home, software licensing and subscriptions, virtual private networks and security — total $67,704.60.
There are two revenue sources offsetting local expenditures so far — a $93,082 grant from the Minnesota Department of Health supporting the public health response, and $150,000 expected from the Minnesota Department of Human Services to assist in costs associated with sheltering homeless people from Crow Wing County and others in need of quarantine outside their home during the statewide state of emergency.
Community Services Director Kara Terry reported Wednesday the county is sheltering 19 local homeless people in a hotel. Although a hotel voucher program for those experiencing homelessness in the area is nothing new, having it centralized through county government is. Terry said this is due to the grant funding, and it allows other agencies such as The Salvation Army to focus on services like food distribution the county does not directly provide.
Community services personnel are assisting those experiencing homelessness with finding more permanent housing, as well as providing case management for issues such as substance use and mental health concerns. Terry noted the homeless population as a whole is more vulnerable to COVID-19 due to a higher likelihood of underlying conditions. The county is taking measures to ensure it is assisting only those who reside in Crow Wing.
There are still a number of unknowns in the budget analysis as the situation continues to evolve. As of now, county officials do not know how much they will receive in disaster funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for instance.
“These numbers are our best representation of what we know today and are subject to change as we receive more data, invoices, and communications from the State or Fed,” wrote Nick Mielke, finance director, in an email Wednesday.
Houle said these unexpected costs are the reason the county board moved to suspend capital projects for the remainder of 2020, which saved more than $900,000 in planned spending.
Communication issues addressed
County commissioners expressed some frustration with Houle at their Tuesday committee of the whole meeting, noting they felt theyCounty commissioners expressed some frustration with Houle at their Tuesday committee of the whole meeting, noting they felt they weren’t receiving enough information about the county’s overall response to the crisis.
Chairman Paul Koering said he was troubled by the fact he learned from a constituent about the purchase of a semitrailer for possible use as a morgue in the event of mass fatalities. Houle told the Dispatch last week that purchase reflected death projections based on models early in the crisis, as well as a lack of morgue capacity in the county as a whole.
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen echoed Koering’s concerns.
“No, I don’t like to hear about it from constituents and that seems to be a good way to hear about things lately,” Franzen said.
Houle offered an apology to those who felt they weren’t well informed, noting he’s had trouble keeping up with the various responses across all departments in the county.
“We have been trying to stay ahead of what we anticipate the community’s needs to be,” Houle said. “I can’t keep track of all the things that staff is working on as we go through this. So I apologize, Mr. Chair, if you feel like you’re not being well informed, and I will do my best to try to make sure you’re better informed.”
Commissioner Bill Brekken asked Houle whether these various responses — including the morgue truck — fall within the county’s emergency preparedness plan. Houle responded that they do.
“We try to anticipate what are the kinds of things that can be disruptive to the community that emergency management will need to respond to,” Houle said.
He noted while COVID-19 death projections have gone down, the planning continues in an effort to be as prepared as possible for whatever may come.
“I think all of us could agree the degree to which we are prepared for something doesn't mean we want that to happen,” Houle said. “It just means we are planful and prepared.”
Commissioner Steve Barrows said this event showed elected officials across the country an overall lack of preparedness for a pandemic of this scale.
“I think we as a board need to have a discussion about what level of preparedness that we might deem necessary for future events like this,” Barrows said. “Everybody in this country at this point I think has to step back, all the electeds, and say we’re being reactive rather than proactive. But I think there’s a certain level, there’s a sweet spot, where we need to be prepared for these kinds of issues, and we weren’t prepared this time.”
Koering reiterated he felt the commissioners needed to be more up to speed as the county’s elected representatives.
“We are the elected people and we have to know what’s going on in this county so that we can relay that back to our constituents. We’re their first point of contact, I believe,” Koering said. “There’s a lot of anxiety out there, and people, when they come to their elected person and their elected person doesn’t know the answer and should know the answer, that’s quite concerning.”
Barrows compared the situation to his own family’s experience with communicating with doctors about his son’s medical issues. He said it was frustrating at times until he told the doctors to tell him what questions he should be asking.
“We decided to reverse it and say to them, tell me what I don’t know,” Barrows said. “Tell me what the questions are I should be asking that I don’t know I should be asking. So I think that’s the same thing we could say to the administrator, what do you know that I don’t know? … It’s a two-way conversation.”
Commissioner Doug Houge was not present at Tuesday’s committee meeting.
CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .