November 28, 2021

COVID funding: County pushes 2 projects

Four weeks after county officials debated who would decide how to spend Cortland County’s $9 million share of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan funding, two proposals are on their way to the full Legislature for approval.

On Tuesday, the Legislature’s Highway Committee and Finance and Administration Committee each rubber-stamped the use of federal funding for county highway and road rehabilitation and the optional payout of accumulated comp time for county employees who worked extra hours throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The Highway Committee passed the highway funding 6-1 with Legislator George Wagner (R-Lapeer, Marathon) opposing. The finance committee approved the comp time plan 5-0 with Beau Harbin (D-Cortland) and Richard Stock (D-Cortland). It approved the highway plan as part of its consent agenda.

Less than three weeks since an ad hoc Federal Aid Allocation Citizen’s Advisory Committee was created, it recommended the county allocate $600,000 of the federal funds to the Highway Department for rehabilitation projects — half to be used throughout the rest of this calendar year, and the other half to be allocated to the county road budget in 2022.

The federal government allows the money to be used over two years for costs associated with responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, supporting essential workers, covering revenue losses caused by the pandemic, or investments in water, sewer or broadband, assistance to small businesses and nonprofit organizations or aid to affected people.

“To me, a second $300,000 shouldn’t even be considered until after budget preparation,” Wagner said at the highway committee meeting. “I mean, we know that’s coming out of the stimulus funds and I’m all for that, but … how can we obligate next year’s money when we haven’t done a budget?”

Wagner suggested the committee approve the first allocation to the highway department and approve the 2022 allocation after budgets were finalized.

Legislator Kelly Preston (U-Homer) asked whether the advisory committee approved the additional $300,000 for the following year, to which Chairman Paul Heider (R-Cuyler, Solon, Truxton) confirmed that the advisory committee voted 6-1 in favor.

“I guess I thought that — the whole $9 million — that there was going to be a grand plan, not piece-mealing, was my understanding,” said Legislator Eugene Waldbauer (R-Cortlandville). “Why this extra $300,000, when I’m sure everybody else has wants and needs?”

Waldbauer asked if the 2022 allocation is part of a grand plan for the highway department.

“I think the Legislature, as a whole, pretty much agreed that the highway department needs funding,” said Highway Superintendent Charles Sudbrink. “If this isn’t passed, the chances of getting any construction projects done this year are gone.”

However, so far this year, the Highway Department has completed 14.9 miles of road — nearly double the historical average of mileage per year, Sudbrink said.

“As of today, we’ve completed all but two of our projects,” Sudbrink said. “We have three more miles remaining on Preble Road from (routes) 281 and 11, and an additional three miles just under the 18-mile mark.”

In addition to the Highway Department’s construction projects throughout the rest of the year, the Legislature’s Finance and Administration Committee voted in favor of allocating up to $75,000 in federal funds to offer financial compensation for county employees in place of comp time.

“These individuals worked tirelessly, some of them seven days a week, and there was no thought in their minds that they would be financially compensated for this,” said Legislator Cathy Bischoff (D-Cortland).

Wagner reminded his fellow committee members that payout for comp time has been frowned upon in the past.

“The idea is not to reward them, but to pay them for the comp time that they accumulated during the pandemic if they choose to accept it,” Heider said.

“I think the public, at large, will support this. I think people will understand.”

The amount of comp time accumulated for all the county department heads and management employees through June 15 totaled around 1,750 hours — more than employees could be expected to use before the end of the year.

“They understood the context, there was no promise given at any time that there would be a financial equivalent to that comp time,” Bischoff said. “And yet, day after day, they dealt with very difficult and emotionally challenging jobs in order to guide this county through a pandemic.”