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Carroll County commissioners vote to automatically follow governor’s moves on COVID-19

Carroll County Board of Commissioners held a hybrid meeting Sept. 24, 2020. Commissioner Stephen Wantz, pictured, and Eric Bouchat attended in person, spaced apart and separated by dividers. Commissioners Ed Rothstein and Richard Weaver attended virtually.
Carroll County Board of Commissioners held a hybrid meeting Sept. 24, 2020. Commissioner Stephen Wantz, pictured, and Eric Bouchat attended in person, spaced apart and separated by dividers. Commissioners Ed Rothstein and Richard Weaver attended virtually. (Mary Grace Keller)

After months of essentially rubber-stamping their approval on Gov. Larry Hogan’s pandemic-related orders and reopening steps, the Carroll County commissioners voted to automatically go along with the governor’s moves from here on out.

Throughout the pandemic, the Board of County Commissioners has voted to follow Hogan’s lead as he eased restrictions put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The board typically meets at 9 a.m. on Thursdays. Last Friday, Sept. 18, Hogan announced restaurants could reopen to 75% indoor capacity. Rather than have Carroll residents wait six days for the commissioners to validate that move with a vote, board President Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, told business owners to go ahead.

“I’m 100% sure that my colleagues would agree that this is something we would go along with,” he said Sept. 18.

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This week, as the board discussed its support of the increased capacity for restaurants, one commissioner suggested they streamline the process for the future.

“We have been adhering to our governor’s guidelines, his executive orders, to a T. I think it’s by exception if we don’t," said Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5. He suggested the board establish a rule that the county government will automatically go along with the governor’s decisions in relation to COVID-19.

Rothstein said doing so would send a strong message to the community about moving forward and make the approval process “less clunky." His idea quickly gained support from the other three commissioners present. Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, was absent.

Roberta Windham, county administrator, noted the commissioners would be able to alter their decision in the future, should the governor’s orders go in a direction the county does not wish to follow.

Testing advice from health officer

County Health Officer Ed Singer has been a regular at county commissioner meetings, providing statistics and offering advice relating to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. On Thursday, he spoke about residents deciding which type of COVID-19 test to take, recommending the traditional test over the faster option.

Traditional polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests are versions of the ones commonly offered at community testing sites, but samples are normally sent to commercial labs that can take days or longer to provide results. Rapid antigen tests produce results faster, but Singer said there’s more variability. This rapid test looks for proteins on the surface of the virus, but people tested too soon after exposure can get a false negative, The Baltimore Sun has reported.

Most schools and employers won’t accept a negative antigen test as a valid reason to let you return, Singer advised. He recommended people get the PCR test from the start, clarifying he did not mean to suggest the antigen test is not useful.

Singer also encouraged residents to get their flu shots. While it’s not unusual for the health department to encourage residents to get flu shots, there’s an added layer of importance this year.

“It’ll cause us less confusion in trying to sort out what’s COVID and what’s the flu," Singer said. He does not want people to be unnecessarily quarantined. It’s also possible to have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, he said.

The county will offer a drive-thru flu vaccination clinic at local senior centers the week of Oct. 5. A list of times and locations is available through the county website, under the Department of Citizen Services, on the Bureau of Aging and Disabilities calendar.

Funding sought for eviction prevention

Fighting to keep residents from losing their homes and to help landlords pay bills, Carroll County plans to seek $550,000 in grant funding.

A second round of community development block grant COVID-19 funding is available through the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, said Celene Steckel, director of the Department of Citizen Services. Through the federal coronavirus relief package, the state housing department released more than $16 million in funding, then later released an additional $5.2 million, Steckel said.

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The county would use $500,000 of that funding for eviction prevention by paying rental arrears. An additional $50,000 would go toward administrative oversight of the grant and creating a housing stability position, according to Steckel.

A survey of landlords conducted by Human Services Programs of Carroll County Inc. (HSP) found 122 tenants owed about $483,000 in rental arrears, Steckel said, which accounts for a minuscule portion of the county’s total renters. With an estimated 9,919 housing rental units in the county, Steckel predicts the actual amount of rental arrears owed is much higher than $483,000.

The county has already devoted $500,000 to this concern. The commissioners last month directed a portion of its federal coronavirus relief funds to a rental support program administered by HSP. Information on the program can be found at https://hspinc.org/ or by calling HSP at 410-857-2999.

Revenue better than expected, but outlook still not good

Ted Zaleski, county director of management and budget, warned the commissioners at the start of the pandemic that Carroll could see as much as $4 million loss in revenue each month of the shutdown. Now, the latest fourth-quarter distribution has officials predicting a nearly $3 million revenue surplus for fiscal year 2020, Zaleski said Thursday.

What’s more, the county spent less than predicted, saving almost $13 million. The commissioners actively tried to reduce spending, the county had a favorable year in terms of expenses relating to snow and ice, and, in some ways, the shutdown saved the county money, according to Zaleski.

Once the year-end 2020 financials have been calculated, he estimates the county will have nearly $30 million sitting in its unassigned fund balance, a sort of savings fund for the county.

Despite this seemingly good news, he cautioned the commissioners against making changes to the fiscal year 2021 budget, which was cautiously crafted to be smaller than the previous year’s.

“Now I know you see $30 million sitting there and your minds probably quickly start to move to things that you would like to get accomplished," Zaleski told the commissioners. “I’m going to ask you to try to shove those thoughts out. I’m going to argue we need to hang on to this money. This is our life raft.”

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Zaleski said the increased income tax revenue, a large reason for the surplus, comes from the state reconciling estimated tax earnings with actual distribution totals.

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“This is money related to previous tax years,” he said. "This tells us nothing about what’s happening today. It’s just the state getting balanced out with us on what we received in the past versus what we should have received.”

Looking ahead, Zaleski doesn’t know what the full impact of COVID-19 will be. Beyond 2021, he’s worried about what happens after federal aid is gone, and voiced concern over property tax, income tax and the housing market. He recommended the commissioners hold on to that near-$30 million in unassigned funds so that if something happens, the county has flexibility to act.

Zaleski acknowledged that budget concerns also exist unrelated to COVID-19, such as the solid waste fund, the new emergency services department and the state’s budget.

The commissioners did not take a vote on the budget, though the shared sentiment seemed to be that the board should hold the line on the 2021 budget. Wantz suggested the budget be raised again at the next meeting so Frazier can weigh in on the subject.

Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this story.

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