County commission ratifies existing emergency order, gives raises to County Manager and County Attorney
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
During the October 13 Alachua County Commission meeting, the commissioners discussed several topics related to COVID.
Gainesville City Manager Lee Feldman joined the meeting to ask the County for $87,500 in CARES Act money to hire a consultant to study how to tailor COVID messaging to communities that aren’t following the mandates. Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson introduced the topic by saying, “This could be the thousand people that were gathered at Fletcher’s over the weekend, partying without masks or social distancing; this could be college students who are doing similar sorts of things; these are hard-to-get-to groups that need to understand that we’re all in this together and helping each other; it could also be certain kinds of businesses that don’t feel like they need to comply with the rules.”
Feldman said, “We’re not reaching a lot of the groups that we need to reach to change behavior… so we’ve reached out to the Center for Public Interest Communications, which is a group associated with the university, and have a two-pronged proposal. The first prong is to actually do the research and determine the best methods to reach these smaller subsets of our community and to identify who the influencers are and the right tools for messaging to these groups. And then the second, which we do not have a proposal yet, will actually be to implement these recommendations.”
County Commission Ken Cornell asked whether the City had any CARES Act funds left to pay for the study. Feldman said the City has exceeded their CARES Act allocation “by a little over a million dollars at this point, so we are planning on submitting for reimbursement in excess of our allocation.”
Commissioner Mike Byerly said, “I’m kind of disinclined to do this, particularly if we don’t know how much we’ll… spend in the end… I have to say, I’m deeply skeptical that the groups we’re talking about are behaving the way they are, the target groups, because they’re… it’s hard for me to believe they’re uninformed. I think they are informed; they’re getting a lot more thorough information from places other than local government, and they’re making the decision based upon that, and the idea that they’re susceptible to a local government public information campaign, given the national climate, is very hard for me to believe. I don’t think it’s a lack of information; I think it’s a lack of agreement about what to do. So I’d be disinclined to spend potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars on this purpose; I’d rather put that money toward directly benefiting people who are struggling right now.”
Commissioner Charles Chestnut said he also preferred for the money to go to help people in the community. Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler also didn’t favor spending the money on an informational campaign.
Hutchinson disagreed: “I think.. virtually all the tools have been taken away from us, any sort of enforcement, whatever. And yet nobody is messaging effectively that we’re all in this together, we should be cooperating, we should be staying home whenever possible, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera… I can’t believe we have figured out that thing to say that will convince folks to perhaps modify their behavior and stay home or wear a mask.”
Feldman responded, “This is not, like, go buy ads somewhere and publish them in the newspaper or social media, you know, blitz or something along that line. We’re at a point where we’re starting to see our numbers increase, and they are in… various subsets in the population. And what we need to do is figure out how to get to the influencers of those subsets of the population and provide them the material and the collateral, and the county manager is right— this may go beyond December 30, and we may need to, you know, look at resources other than the CARES Act, but what we do know is what we’re doing now isn’t working.
“And I would invite anybody to come with me on a Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night, not only in the city of Gainesville, but outside as well, where we’re having congregations of large groups unmasked, and there are things we really need to figure out how to do to reach those populations. And we do think this fits squarely within the CARES Act, but I’ll tell you, if the County says no, we’re still doing this, because it’s the right thing to do. And all we’re asking is the ability to go above our allocation this $87,500 and submit that to the County for available CARES Act.”
Cornell said Feldman should coordinate with County staff and bring this back in the first week of November, when they reevaluate the CARES Act program.
Byerly pushed back: “I heard you took off some things, Hutch, that you said were not being communicated, and I hear those things being communicated constantly. Nonstop.”
Hutch interjected, “You’re a middle-aged white guy who’s plugged in.”
Byerly: “That’s not the point… the three things that you mentioned that are not being communicated are being communicated nonstop, including on Fox News and anyone you want to mention. We’re awash in a, particularly, social media sea right now of the messaging you just described. And people are taking positions on one side or another. It’s not that people have not been exposed to the ‘Oh, we’re all in this together’ message. It’s just that people have a different idea about what we ought to do about what we’re in.
“And the idea, which I think I heard expressed, is that this money will be used to identify opinion leaders in the groups that aren’t doing what we want, and if we can convert them, they will preach a new message to their followers and they’ll do something different. I just think that’s naive. It doesn’t work that way, and the people who are engaging in behaviors we don’t like right now are not motivated by following an opinion leader. It’s college-age hormones that’s driving a whole lot of one of the groups we’re concerned about, and some of it is just a disbelief in what they’re being told by government.
“So more government messaging is not going to overcome that. I get it—we’re thinking we can get inside the minds of the people who aren’t doing what we want them to do, to persuade them otherwise. I think that’s a complete waste of money. I think the right thing to do is to make sure that we’re expending all of our resources that we can, actually helping people who are struggling with the fallout of COVID because we know that will help.”
Hutchinson asked Feldman to send the proposal to the County Manager’s office. Feldman responded, “Yeah, we’ll certainly have already submitted the proposal to the County Manager over the weekend—we are launching. We can’t wait until November. So certainly you can, you know, talk about this again in November, whether you want to assist in the funding, but we’re moving forward with this because we think there is a problem out there, and we’re not hitting the right groups. We have talked with the university as part of our discussions on this. We have had some preliminary discussions at the county level, so we think that this is an important next step to keep our curve flat.”
Health department update
Next, Paul Myers, Alachua County Administrator for the Florida Department of Health, gave an update on the local situation. Regarding local COVID deaths, he said, “This morning we’ve added one death, and just a word about these deaths. Again, the date that the death is reported differs significantly from the date that the person actually passed away, and you’ll see that on this next slide… we haven’t had any deaths the last two weeks. We have some reported, but there is a delay compared to the date of the person passing away.”
In a later comment, he added, “Just something about deaths: every single one of these individuals had significant underlying health conditions. These are not healthy individuals who have passed away. Even the ones that are—one individual 20-to-29 years old, the 30-to-39 years old, these are individuals who had significant comorbidities.”
Regarding schools, Myers said there is some secondary transmission, but the vast majority is in football teams, not necessarily during practice but hanging out after practice or carpooling.
Myers explained the testing plan for students who are exposed to a positive index case: “We’re doing something in Alachua County that not a whole lot of other people, in fact I’m not aware of anybody else in the state, that are testing contacts on day 3 and 9 following a confirmed exposure to a case. The day 3 testing is for two reasons: one, it’s protective. We want these parents to know if their child has converted, if they’re a positive at home, especially if there’s somebody vulnerable in that household, where the vast majority of our transmission is occurring is in the household setting, and day 9, we really are pushing the envelope when it comes to trying to get to kids back to school on day 10 if they test negative on day 9, and I can tell you that data is being generated to… show that this is very effective and it does mitigate risk.
“So day 3 testing of close contacts, we’ve had 57 individuals tested. Of those 57, we have discovered 6 positives, and again, that’s 6 families now that have that information so they can take extra precautions at home, and that equates again to about a 10.5% positivity rate. Day 9 testing, we are seeing very little conversion, with a 3.8% positivity of the 265 individuals tested with confirmed results—that’s either positive or negative results. We’ve had 10 individuals test positive on day 9, with 255 who have been able to return to class on day 10. So that’s 255 times 4 extra days of school that Alachua County has been able to provide to these students—a thousand school days of instruction that have been provided to these students that otherwise would not have been done if they were going to another school district.”
The school district has received over 600 Abbott rapid test kits that they can use to test students or teachers who have symptoms; results are available within 15 minutes.
Myers also said they’re not getting a high level of participation in the free FluMist program this year and encouraged parents to sign the consent form. He also emphasized that anyone with symptoms should stay home from work, school, or any social activities.
County Attorney Sylvia Torres summarized the latest emergency order, which requires businesses to post signs and make sure their employees wear masks. If the order is violated, businesses can be fined. Individuals may also be fined, but those fines are not currently collectible. The county commission voted to ratify the order without any changes.
GRACE Marketplace funding
The commission discussed a request from GRACE Marketplace for additional funding for transitional campground operations. In 2019, the County agreed to budget $250,000 for the purpose of closing Dignity Village. The City of Gainesville added another $250,000, but the closure has now cost over $700,000, and the County’s half of the shortfall is $113,000.
Jon DeCarmine, the Executive Director of GRACE, told the commission that they have moved 100 people into permanent housing as a result of the closure. He said the plan was always to reduce the roster of Dignity Village residents over a 2-year period, and they are 8 months into that period, with a 74% reduction.
Cornell said he didn’t realize that the County did not communicate that the $250k was intended to be one-time funding. He said the additional money hadn’t been budgeted, so it would have to come from reserves, and he was hesitant to tap into reserves only 2 weeks into the budget year.
Byerly agreed that the County had been clear that they were moving to a strategy of rapid rehousing instead of funding GRACE and that he didn’t think they needed to do anything additional at this point.
Chestnut said he agreed that the County had always intended the funding to be one-time but that he could support an additional $80,000.
Wheeler said they’re doing “amazing work” out at GRACE, and she thought the County should pitch in “to take care of each other.”
Byerly said again that the County had been very clear about their intent and “I don’t think it’s incumbent upon us to look within our budget and struggle to find money in reserves or whatever to be solving this problem. I think that the problem that has been put to us is the City’s problem, and they should be going through that exercise, looking for funding in their reserves or whatever sources.”
Cornell moved that “staff evaluate whether we can allocate any prior year or current year’s permanent supportive housing allocation or the CARES Act Category 3-eligible payroll costs, which would include public safety, to see if we can facilitate the shortfall, and bring it back at a later meeting.” Wheeler seconded the motion. The motion passed 3-2, with Byerly and Chestnut in dissent.
Raises for the County Manager and County Attorney
The commissioners considered evaluations and compensation for the County Manager and County Attorney. 3% pay increases were already included in the FY21 budget. Wheeler made a motion to add $10,000 to the salaries of each. The new amounts would be $195,550 plus 3% for the County Manager and $164,800 plus 3% for the County Attorney.
Byerly said he supports both officers, but giving them a separate raise would send the wrong message to the rest of the County’s employees.
During public comment, Nathan Skop said the additional raise “sets the wrong example in the current environment. In the real world outside of government, many people have been laid off, Disney furloughed all across the state of Florida, or had their salaries cut 20% or more. Being in county or city government doesn’t entitle executive staff members to raises in the midst of a pandemic or financial crisis.” He said the raises were “egregious” and “not fiscally responsible.”
The motion passed 4-1, with Byerly in dissent.
The people of this county and this nation have heard the message loud and clear about wearing mask and not gathering in large groups. Some believe in it and follow it and others don’t. Spending foolishly more money to convey a message that we already have or choose to ignore is just more wasteful spending and foolish.
Those that do, will. Those that don’t, wont.
Hmmmm…they don’t like the large gatherings at Fletchers
On NW 5th Ave…sounds racist. Where’s BLM?
Has this commission hit a new record of foolish spending? Oh let’s give some more money to government officials while people are laid off. Sounds like a good plan. The one laid off can just move the Grace Market Place.
Chuck Hutch you look like an urban guerilla, you need a haircut. Have some pride man. We all know that you go out in public.
Oh yes, please, give out more money, it is not out of you pocket.
Raises to already highly paid employees sends the WRONG message. As said in the article, many many people have been either laid off or had their hours cut due to covid.
Must have given the county manager $1 for every time she uttered “ummm” during the past year’s meetings and the county attorney $10 for every time she suggested a means to reign in the rural communities or circumvent the governor’s orders.
How’s that “big” government working for all the $oci@lists out there?
My biggest take away from this is that the City wants almost $88,000 of County CARES Act money because they have overspent theirs by $1 million (let that sink in for a moment). This is the same city that told the County they did not want to fund any of the joint law enforcement helicopter, told the School Board that they will be looking to eliminating their contribution to school resource officers, and other items they do not want to pay toward. Oh and let’s not gloss over the fact that the money is to hire a consultant not actually do anything. Feldman said they would be doing it any way but would like money from the County, I wonder what they will cut to pay for this, maybe future expenditures on mulch?
My biggest take away is that not only do the county commissioners continue to shove it up our @r$eS, a couple of them also enjoy sitting on that two-pronged fork and spinning around on it to get their rocks off. Hutch and Cornell know who they are.
Never in our history have we quarantined a healthy society.But we did. These masks don’t work on viruses—fact. Why don’t we wear them for flu season??? Go by results of hospitalizations and deaths, that’s how “pandemics” are measured. And on top of all this b.s. you guys vote yourself a raise! Brilliant!!!