BISBEE — As Cochise County prepares to receive $24.5 million over the next year from the federal government under the American Recovery Plan Act, the county Board of Supervisors held a work session to discuss how and where these special funds can be used.
So far, the county received half of that amount and thought it would be a benefit to get the county partially out of debt with the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System. However, the money comes with strings attached, ruling out any sort of pay down on debts, settlements or putting it in the piggy bank for future emergencies.
Associate County Administrator Sharon Gilman told Supervisors Ann English, Peggy Judd and Tom Crosby on Tuesday that the ARPA team, which includes Chief Civil Deputy County Attorney Christine Roberts, met back in March to determine how the money might best be spent within the restrictive guidelines.
“This is in alignment with the Board’s Strategic Plan, the county would utilize the funds to achieve substantial near-term economic and public health benefits, as well as support longer term investment in allowable infrastructure,” she said.
She pointed out the list she presented was not all inclusive and did not rule out changes and additions being made in the process.
“We can pivot through the year as any COVID impacts develop with new strains or as pandemic changes,” she added.
They came up with four areas of interest — responding to the public health emergency and the negative economic impacts, address revenue loss on a countywide basis, premium pay for essential workers and fourth address water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
Since the county itself did not suffer any great economic loss, it was discounted as was premium pay for essential workers since the Board already had a policy for wages and salaries. However, the county could use the funding for a portion of healthcare, emergency staff and public safety as COVID-19 related.
Gilman suggested $1.4 million to cover COVID-19 costs in public health and detention services with at least 50 percent of time dedicated to mitigating and responding to the public health emergency. This would return some money to the general fund.
English wanted to help out local businesses who made it through the rough times and thought owners could be helped by the county waiving fees for health inspections, especially since the county was poised to raise the fees in order to cover the cost of the health inspections and follow up visits.
“For people on a shoestring, those inspection fees are a problem. We have to look at it as public health. We want people to eat in clean restaurants and maintain good health,” English noted. “I want people to know we’re trying to help them, not just filling the county coffers. What about suspending fees at the transfer stations?”
Crosby notes, “Free comes at a high cost,” referring to the trillions of dollars the federal government intends to spend helping Americans and families. “I cannot support this.”
English joked, “I know you want to send all the money back. But, don’t take all the fun out of it.
To ensure better health in county buildings and courtrooms, $2.3 million was suggested to be used for updating the HVAC systems and providing ionizers, which help clean the air, in all buildings to protect staff and the public.
Another issue was putting $1 million toward expanding services for those with mental health issues and working in partnership with Chiricahua Community Health Services, Inc. (CCHSI), for program development and staffing.
She noted the county is in dire need of mental health professionals as those issues arise more and more particularly in detention. Currently, there are only two psychiatrists for the whole county.
She said,, “If Chiricahua is willing to try to fix the problems that exist, I’d support that. But, is $1 million enough? If we start too small we may not be able to build a self sustaining program. And this has to be county wide. Not just in Sierra Vista. Maybe we should earmark $1.5 million to show the public we’re serious about this problem.”
CCHSI Chief Medical Officer Dr. Darlene Melk said the organization was interested in providing the service. But, she said the organization had no one to fill the roll to oversee mental health at the current time. She agreed to put together a proposal for how the mental health program would be run and the staffing and money needed to fund it.
Melk envisioned a staff of three or four mental health professionals with the service starting in Sierra Vista and expanding out from there to other county locations.
Still, the service would not be provided 24/7, as Judd suggested.
“We have these mental health crises throughout the county,” she emphasized.
Melk replied CCHSI does have an emergency number for such situations, but to have a clinical facility especially for such patients was not in the plan.
Currently, Canyon Vista Medical Center has a 10-bed wing for mental health patients and CCHSI partners with them.
Though it was suggested to use some of the money for rental and mortgage assistance, English pointed out the state was handling those issues and people just needed to contact the state for help.
They also discussed setting aside $500,000 for water and wastewater systems for the proposed new commercial port of entry west of Douglas, using $5 million for the Bisbee effluent pipeline project to help the San Pedro River and expanding broadband access throughout the county.
There will be more discussions to come on the use of the ARPA.