Commission considers courthouse upgrades among projects being pondered for final CARES Act funding

By Buck Collier, Special Correspondent

HERMANN — New drinking fountains — and possibly other upgrades — in the Gasconade County Courthouse are begin considered by county government administrators as they ponder the use of the final batch of CARES Act money.

After the initial deadline for spending the $1.725-million in CARES Act funding received by Gasconade County was reached, all but about $67,000 was used. But rather than having to send that money back to the federal government, Gov. Mike Parson granted counties more time to use the money. Counties now have until June 1 to disperse any remaining dollars.

A dozen or more applications from businesses, non-profit organizations and local government agencies for CARES Act money were left unprocessed by Meramec Regional Planning Commission (MRPC) when the Dec. 20 deadline arrived. The Gasconade County Commission directed MRPC to process those applications to determine the legitimacy of the proposed use of the funds. The Commission has yet to act on any of those requests.

County administrators began considering possible anti-coronavirus projects within the courthouse and decided that new drinking fountains that could be activated by a knee rather than a hand — aimed at curbing the spread of the virus — would be a legitimate use of some of the remaining funds. Presiding Commissioner Larry Miskel, R-Hermann, last Thursday asked Associate Commissioners Jerry Lairmore, R-Owensville, and Jim Holland, R-Hermann, to consider information about new drinking fountains in the past week for possible action at tomorrow’s session. The Commission will hold its first-Thursday-of-the-month session at Owensville City Hall.

Initial efforts to inquire about the new drinking fountains were directed to out-of-state providers. Miskel said he would check to see if the fountains could be obtained through local plumbing companies. One estimate puts the price of one version of the drinking fountain at about $1,400.

Officeholders also are offering their thoughts on possible upgrades to the courthouse. County Clerk Lesa Lietzow said a survey of the various departments is producing suggestions. “They have some new ideas,” she told the Commission. “We’re getting good answers” regarding possible projects.

Whether there will be more coronavirus-related funding available to counties is unclear. Miskel several weeks ago said a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) told him more money would be forthcoming, he said he has heard nothing further. Nor are local government officials confident of receiving more money through another round of funding being proposed by the Biden Administration. The $1.9-trillion plan being proposed is facing stiff opposition in Congress.

In other matters, Lietzow told the Commission that state government has almost closed the gap that developed over the years regarding reimbursement for prisoner housing. In recent months, the prisoner per diem reimbursement owed by the state to Gasconade County had grown to about $100,000 or more. But as of the end of December, the amount owed had been whittled to less than $1,500, the county clerk said. “We got in quite a bit of money last year,” she said. “They’ve got us almost paid off,” she added.

Whether the divide between what’s owed and what’s paid to the county remains closed is unclear. The governor is requesting $58 million for the next state government budget for prisoner per diem reimbursement. Whether the General Assembly goes along with that won’t be known for sure until the budget is adopted at the end of this session in May.

Gasconade County pays about $35 a day to house prisoners awaiting trial. Prisoners are housed in Crawford and Osage counties. Although state law calls for a higher reimbursement, the state pays only about $23 a day to counties. Short reimbursement payments long have been a chronic problem for counties. In Gasconade County’s case, the short reimbursement has resulted in the Sheriff’s Department’s Jail Fund budget coming dangerously close to running out of money — if not indeed being depleted — by year’s end.