Bartow County officials discuss COVID-19 vaccination plans

Taylor says local government unlikely to receive significant federal funding in 2021

By JAMES SWIFT

A public hearing on the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget on Wednesday morning largely revolved around Bartow County’s COVID-19 response plans, as well as the local government’s expectations for additional federal funding.

“We don’t see a lot of additional pandemic costs to us,” said Bartow County Administrator Peter Olson. “I think vaccine production and distribution is the big story for this year.”

He noted that the roughly $150 million County budget does not include a dedicated COVID-19 response fund. 

“We anticipate, probably, some additional costs in the fire department, which would mainly just be personnel costs,” he said. “We put a little bit more in some of the supplies budget, the facilities department is spraying the hydrostatic chemical that kills the virus, they bought some specialized equipment when this pandemic started. So they treat weekly, or multiple times a week.”

Once the Georgia Department of Public Health allocates enough quantities to Bartow County, Olson said the local government does have plans to open up multiple vaccination sites throughout the community.

“We should be able to get a lot of doses out into the public’s arms,” he said. “We can set up as many as three sites, we figure.”

Tentatively, those vaccination sites would include a location in Adairsville — possibly Manning Mill Park — a location in southern Bartow and another site at the Cartersville Civic Center.

“The vaccine program would be administered by the paramedics that are already on our staff,” Bartow County Commissioner Steve Taylor said.

Olson touched upon the possibility of the local government receiving additional COVID-19 response funding in the year ahead.

“The Biden Administration, their $1.9 trillion package has a $350 billion piece for State and local governments,” he said. “I have not seen any details about the formula for distributing that or who would get it.”

As part of the initial $150 billion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act package the State of Georgia received about $4 billion.

“The governor initially said that 45% of that would go to locals, “ Olson said. “And then they changed their tune and took most of that, and put 70% of that 45% to reimburse the federal government for the money they had borrowed for unemployment payments.”

As Olson noted, however, only cities and counties with populations above 500,000 people received direct allotments from the State of Georgia.

“A lot of cities and counties want to see it come directly to the cities and counties because they got shorted the last time,” he said. 

Olson said he expects the proposed package to produce a political battle in Washington, D.C.

“The Democrats are starting the process of moving that forward with budget reconciliation without any agreement from any Republicans,” he said. “The Republican counter-proposal didn’t have any aid to State or local governments.”

With the State of Georgia’s revenue figures up 6% in the first half of the fiscal year, however, Olson said he wonders if the federal funding would be necessary.

“It’s kind of hard to argue that Georgia needs a whole lot of help — California had a $15 billion surplus last year, it’s kind of hard to argue they need a lot of help,” he said. “We don’t need a handout from the Biden Administration, but if they hand one out to all jurisdictions we certainly won’t say no. That’ll be a benefit to our taxpayers — unfortunately, our taxpayers are paying that freight, ultimately, too. We’re all paying the freight when the feds hand out money.”

If the County did receive the proposed federal funding, Olson said the local government may look into a program to assist small businesses and nonprofits.

Taylor, however, said he’s not optimistic those federal dollars will flow into Bartow County’s coffers.

“Honestly, I don’t see our community getting CARES money again, simply because I think if Congress passes it, it will go to the State and the State won’t pass it onto local governments,” he said.

With the 2020 fiscal year budget tabbed at about $137 million, the proposed FY ’21 Bartow County budget is about $13 million higher. Olson said the bulk of the increase can be attributed to water department capital projects. 

“Nothing is dramatically changing in the general fund budget, it’s kind of a status quo year,” he said. “We’re just keeping our eye on what the economy is going to do this year — there’s still a lot of uncertainties.”

“The last several years, insurance and pension are kind of the bigger, other drivers of the costs, there aren’t that many special requests this year, not too many requests for equipment or vehicles,” Olson said. “Everybody ended the year pretty conservatively, too. Our department heads did a good job of cutting back when the pandemic hit, just trying to be super cautious.”

Taylor is set to approve the budget at a public meeting slated for Feb. 17 at 10 a.m. at the Frank Moore Administration and Judicial Center, at 135 West Cherokee Ave. in Cartersville.