Update: FEMA COVID-19 fund covered cleaning of county buildings

Mark Wilson

An article in Wednesday’s edition of the Empire-Tribune about Erath County spending $40,000 to disinfect four buildings was unintentionally misleading. That tale of woe — an onion that may have made local taxpayers want to cry — has a whole other layer that should dry their tears.

Erath County Commissioners this week pointed out that the expenditure — which the E-T had noticed on a routine county report — was fully covered by the federal government through the nationwide COVID-19 emergency assistance program. That money, from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), was made which was available early-on during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the CARES Act established a $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund.

The money had been available immediately, since the fund was designed to cover COVID-19 expenses that included masks, sanitizer along with cleaning costs.

“It was definitely good we had that money to cover that,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Albert Ray told the E-T Thursday. “We did not pay it. It didn’t cost the (Erath) taxpayers anything.”

County Judge Alfonso Campos also noted, “In this situation, they gave us the money up front.”

Ray explained that each county got (FEMA) money, based on its population.

At the time the local contractor was hired to do the work, in late March — disinfecting the Erath County Courthouse, plus the Annex Building and the county tax offices in both Stephenville and Dublin — it was considered to be an emergency situation after an employee who works in the Erath County Courthouse tested positive for COVID-19.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Dee Stephens said he got in touch with the contractor who had an ozone machine capable of doing the job, and he was available immediately.

“We saw that it was an emergency situation. We were able to catch a local guy and we were able to process it that day,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe Brown said.

“We all agreed it was an emergency situation, and something had to be done,” Ray said.

Although all four commissioners voted in favor of getting that local contractor to do the emergency job, Campos couldn’t be reached when Brown called him until later that night. He was at home at the time, in a 14-day quarantine period because he had had contact with someone who had been tested as positive for COVID-19.

“I just wasn’t able to get back with him,” Campos said. “I was (in) quarantine.”

Stephens said he called the contractor early on a Friday morning, and he told the commissioner he could be there by noon to start the work.

Even though the funding was coming from FEMA, the commissioners still had questions and objections when the contractor presented them a bill for such a large amount of money. And it was originally an even higher — at $48,000.

“We were expecting 6, maybe $8,000,” Stephens said, noting that they did not agree to pay until later because they were holding out for a lower price.

“There was some urgency. We felt like the best thing to do was this process. We did negotiate it down,” Campos said. “I supported what the commissioners did, as far as the urgency.”

Ray said, “The bill was presented to us and we refused to pay. They brought it back to us one or two more times.”

“He came down to $40,000,” Stephens said.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jim Buck added, in a separate interview, “And the county auditor talked to him. We (were) in a bind at the time. We didn’t want this risk to go on.

“We had a hot case in the courthouse, so I feel like our obligation with our employees, and we tried to take care of them. Our goal is to spend local (on contractors). We had a window of opportunity.”

Buck went on to explain the urgency by saying, “A lot of the county, you can’t shut down.”

Buck added that his fellow commissioners are, “basically the most caring there is. We just want the best for the county. All four commissioners had Erath County at heart, and our 250-plus employees.”

Stephens said, “We were doing what any bosses would do, protect your employees. It was unknown, and it was a scary time.”

Since then, Buck noted, the county has obtained two relatively small ionizer machines that can be used to disinfect individual offices as well as county vehicles whenever needed.