Commissioner: 'It is time to open things back up' 

Board extends state of emergency 

The Osceola County board of commissioners approved extending the local state of emergency until April 6 during its virtual meeting last week. (Herald Review photo/Cathie Crew)

The Osceola County board of commissioners approved extending the local state of emergency until April 6 during its virtual meeting last week. (Herald Review photo/Cathie Crew)

REED CITY — The Osceola County Board of Commissioners voted to extend the local state of emergency once more with disagreement from some commissioners.

The extension passed during a recent meeting in a 5-2 vote with Commissioners Sally Momany and Jill Halladay voting "no." The emergency will run through April 6.

In his report to the board, Mark Watkins, Osceola County's emergency manager, said the Emergency Operations Center remains operational primarily to assist the health department and vaccination clinics in the vaccination process, and the state of emergency was necessary to continue that support.

“The vaccination process consists of the internal clinics as well as the ones they are doing at both the Reed City and Marion offices,” Watkins said. “I can’t say enough about what the health department is doing with the vaccination process given the resources and constraints they have been given. They are doing an excellent job serving the community.

“The EOC is helping out with scheduling and we have coordinated with them so that maintains itself after March 15,” he added. “With all the vaccination clinics ongoing, I believe a local state of emergency is warranted until April 6, which is another 30-day extension.”

Commissioners expressed concerns that continuing the state of emergency declaration would inhibit the ability of businesses, schools and county offices to begin opening to the public.

Partial closures have been in place for months due to the continued spread of COVID-19.

“During our last meeting we passed a resolution about the whole COVID-19 pandemic, so I have a hard time now turning around and supporting the continuing of the state of emergency,” Momany said. “In my opinion, it is time to open things back up and move forward.”

During a meeting in February, the board adopted a resolution calling upon the Michigan Legislature to “restore the checks and balances essential to our democracy,” and supporting a challenge to the legality of the “orders and restrictions” put in place “in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Watkins reassured the board the state of emergency was not in place to keep things closed, but rather to assist them in opening safely.

“I totally understand the position on that, but right now the state of emergency has nothing to do with shutting anything down,” Watkins said. “In fact, it is helping open things up. There is a difference between the state of emergency and the executive orders shutting things down. Our services are helping with safety plans to keep things open, as well as providing services to schools and other places to remain open.”

County Administrator Susan Vander Pol reminded commissioners that without the state of emergency declaration, it would not be legal for them to conduct virtual meetings beyond March 31.

The Open Meetings Act was amended to allow for virtual meetings through March 31 for any reason. Beyond March 31, there are specific guidelines for participating in a public meeting virtually.

“The is a limit, right now, as to any type of public gathering, so if you weren’t able to Zoom your board meetings, there would be issues with your compliance to the open meetings act,” Vander Pol said.

The executive orders and recommendations from DHHS and MIOSHA limit the number of people that can attend meetings in person, and that those in attendance maintain the six-foot social distancing recommendation.

Commissioner Timothy Michell said it was his understanding that townships and schools, as well as other public bodies, are being told they cannot conduct meetings with a large number of people in the same room right now.

“We still cannot get in the same room together, so how can we possibly have an open meeting if we can’t do it personally?” Michell asked. “If somebody wants to come to our meeting, by law we have to allow that.”

Watkins told the board the shutdowns and open meetings issue have almost nothing to do with the state of emergency.

“The Open Meetings Act, I understand is a bit of a concern, however, a lot of people are tagging that to the state of emergency because there was a law put into place that under a local state of emergency you can continue to meet remotely,” Watkins said. “Regardless of whatever people believe about COVID-19, the fact remains that we still have emergency preparations in place. There are still vaccination clinics and public health needs support that is not available through the standard safety net. In addition, there are financial processes ongoing that will decrease the burden on the county, the cities and the municipalities."

Michell asked if the county would lose future federal funding if they were not in a state of emergency.

“I understand there is more money coming, and there is still money left over from last year that they don’t know what to do with,” Michell said. “If there is federal funding available that can relieve the tax burden on our citizens, then I am all for it.”

Watkins said they would "absolutely" lose federal monies, and he believes the efforts of the EOC are currently allowing them to maximize available funding.

“All the state of emergency is doing is allowing us to maintain our staff to help the community be safe and to continue to address these COVID-19 related issues,” he said. “If the state of emergency drops, then those support functions will have to be redistributed to the respective county departments and will no longer be supported by the EOC. I firmly believe that is not in the best interest of the county.”

HOUSING PROGRAM UPDATE

In other business, the board addressed the possibility of moving the Housing Rehabilitation Program to a third party contractor.

The housing rehabilitation program, currently within the Community Economic Development department, provides funding for home repairs to low-income residents.

Community development director Dan Massy told the board he did not believe moving the administrative responsibilities to a third-party contractor would be a good decision.

Osceola County currently has a contract with the Big Rapids Housing Commission to perform functions related to housing rehab grant, but the community development department does the administrative tasks that allow it to maintain oversight of the program, Massy said in a letter to the board.

“The county will lose oversight of the program but will remain responsible for ensuring the Community Development Block Grant is properly managed,” Massy said.

Vander Pol said the guidance from the grant document indicated that the county can contract out for someone else to do work, but ultimately, a county employee is responsible for the grant.

“The state of Michigan will not recognize a third party administrator for oversight of the grant,” she said.

In addition, Massy said, the income to the county for each project is only 2%, which amounts to around $381 a year.

“I don’t think you can get anybody to give this program the interest it deserves at that price,” Massy said. “If the person doesn’t give you the oversight and run the program as it should be done, the county is going to end up with a program it is responsible for but has no authority over. My recommendation is to keep it in house.”

The board agreed to maintain the program as it is for now, until further investigation can be done as to the best way to handle it in the future.

During the meeting, the board also approved the following:

• The EMPG-S COVID-19 Supplemental grant application.

• Updates to the county Insurance and New Employee Information policies.

• A quote from Phelps Plumbing and Heating, Inc for the replacement of cast iron piping in the basement of the jail not to exceed $10,900.

• The United Way Grant 2021 application for Commission on Aging.

• The Tyler Technologies Software Service agreement for the Register of Deeds department.