The Geauga County Commissioners approved $1.1 million in Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act spending for the Engineer’s Office and the Department of Jobs and Family Services last week.

The commissioners held a special meeting on Oct. 8 to continue the discussion on the purchase of six plow trucks, four chainsaws, one Ford F550 quad cab mechanics vehicle and one mini excavator for the engineer’s office last week, with the addition of a GMC Acadia SUV for JFS.

During their regular Oct. 6 meeting, the commissioners approved about $122,000 in CARES Act expenditures for the engineer’s office, opting to wait on the approval of the vehicles pending guidance from the Ohio Office of Budget and Management. Commissioner Tim Lennon had raised concern about spending the money earmarked for direct mitigation for the COVID-19 health crisis, but voiced he would approve the spending if the state OK’d it.

Mr. Lennon was not present at the special meeting, but later said he would have voted no on the vehicle purchases based on information from the state. In an email to the Times, he said he tried to reschedule the meeting, but understood there was a hurry to have the meeting to avoid missing the opportunity to order the vehicles.

A press release from the engineer’s office noted that County Administrator Gerry Morgan and Budget and Finance Manager Adrian Gorton secured the affirmation that CARES Act requirements were met prior to the commissioners’ approval.

Frank Antenucci, administrator of the engineer’s office, presented the request once again to the commissioners and explained the necessity of the expenditures for the plow trucks. No discussion was held regarding the chainsaws, Ford F550 and the mini excavator, but Mr. Gorton addressed in the Oct. 6 meeting that the additional tools and vehicles were necessary to avoid sharing and cross contamination between employees.

Mr. Anenucci explained that the engineer’s office currency has 35 CDL drivers with about 30 of them certified as plow truck drivers. He said the county currently has about 20 plow trucks that service three townships in the county.

“We are sharing all of these trucks, we’re in a situation where someone is in here for eight to 12 hours at a time, we’re doing back-to-back shifts, we’re running 24/7 for three, four, five months, and the potential for the spread of COVID in these trucks, that’s a huge concern,” Mr. Antenucci said.

He showed the commissioners pictures of what the cabins look like in the trucks, noting levers and buttons and cloth seating.

“The concern is that if somebody happens to have [COVID-19] and they pass it around in the truck to other drivers, we could have a lot of people sick,” he explained, adding that if a driver were diagnosed with the virus and was in direct contact with other drivers due to sharing the trucks, it could put enough of them into quarantine that could prevent the county from efficiently plowing the roads in winter.

“Having multiple drivers assigned to one truck would have required each truck to be immediately quarantined for cleaning and thorough sanitization after each use. Such quarantine would have delayed emergency response creating potentially unsafe and dangerous road conditions during an ongoing emergency while trucks remain parked at the Engineer’s Office for cleaning and sanitization,” the engineer’s office stated in the press release.

“The goal, then, was to have individual assigned trucks for everyone,” Mr.Antenucci said. “This is unique. We were not necessarily prepared for a situation where we’d have to have an individual truck assignment.”

“There’s a certain level of responsibility, there’s a certain level of pride because this truck is assigned to you. You’re going to take care of it,” Commissioner Ralph Spidalieri said, noting that the county can even pinpoint who would be at fault for any damage to the trucks in this case. “The checks and balances on this makes it a whole lot better.”

He added that maintenance may also be better for the engineer’s office by not having individual trucks on the road as long and the idea that workers might keep better care of the trucks if they’re assigned to them.

“I just think that this is going to give us an opportunity to really, even improve our operation and efficiency,” Mr. Spidalieri said. “I think this is going to give us a definite, positive impact.”

Commissioner James Dvorak agreed, noting that his time as a Burton Township trustee showed him the necessity of having additional plow trucks. He recalled an event where a plow truck ran into a ditch and wasn’t removed until about six hours after because of a snow storm.

“So, to have what you need to provide for the residents is very essential,” he said.

“It’s about us, as a county,” Mr. Spidalieri said, “and I think that this is good.”

He commented that with the additional plow trucks, the county has better opportunities to help surrounding communities with plowing roads.

“If we don’t capture this money, then it’s possible that other counties would scoop up that money as well,” Mr. Dvorak said.

Mr. Antenucci had also noted the urgency of the request, explaining that the only reason the county was able to make the request is because the trucks considered were already made and ready to be sold.

“We wanted more,” he said. “We wanted nine or 10 trucks, but they’re simply not built and they’re being scooped up across the state as is now.”

In an email to the Times, however, Mr. Lennon said he didn’t believe there was enough surety to go through with the approval of the purchases, citing an email from OBM’s Gene Berry, financial manager of the Ohio Grants Partnership, to Geauga County Deputy Auditor Ron Leyde.

“Vehicle purchases are not mentioned in the guidance so we caution any local government that purchasing vehicles (and in your case, numerous ones) could raise a red flag during your audit and/or a monitoring review visit,” Mr. Berry wrote.

“While we do not say yes it is eligible, we also do not say no either,” he continued. “We highly recommend detailed documentation (which you have) to support how this meets all three requirements of the funding and even suggest a legislative authority resolution and/or an opinion from legal counsel.”

“It seems the guidelines are very loosely written, and how it applies to the public health emergency,” Mr. Lennon wrote. “Just [an] email saying kind of? Maybe? Sort of?

“An excavator? A backup fleet of municipal snow plow trucks, chainsaws? If this is the intent for the CARES Act funding then I don’t agree with its purpose at all,” he continued. “It seems I am in the minority and maybe alone on this particular subject. I am sure this equipment will be put to use but is it necessary?”

He addressed his previously stated concerns on servicing and insuring the vehicles, asking how the county will budget the added expenses. “This is still a lot of taxpayers’ dollars, not funny money but real money. Are we being truly honest?

“Personally, I cannot honestly look in the mirror and say this [is] a legitimate use of the funds related to COVID-19, if it was solely up to me I would not have approved these items,” he said.

While not comfortable with the most recent approval of CARES Act funds for county vehicles, he said he believes the county has made good use of the money for employees and residents and will “continue to support expenditures that have had a direct correlation to COVID-19 and any financial impact to Geauga County.”

He noted that due to the county’s fiscal responsibility, they have not been financially impacted by the virus as much as anticipated.

“I have heard the theory if we don’t spend it, it will go back and someone else will spend it,” Mr. Lennon said. “I say we can’t control what others do, just what we do. If this is the attitude across this county, state, and country, we are bigger trouble then I imagined.”

Sam Cottrill started reporting for the Times in February 2019 and covers Auburn, Bainbridge, Bentleyville and Chagrin, Kenston, Solon and West Geauga schools. She graduated from Kent State University in 2018 with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

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