LINCOLN — One rural Nebraska county is giving a generous ‘”thank you” to employees who worked through the COVID-19 pandemic: bonuses of up to $10,000 each, using federal coronavirus recovery funds.
The bonuses, which were approved in August, were described as hazard pay for the 50 or so employees of Morrill County in the Nebraska Panhandle.
Using the money for “premium pay” is allowed under the American Rescue Plan Act that was passed in March, according to officials with the Nebraska Association of County Officials and the Morrill County attorney.
Morrill County is slated to receive about $902,000 from the federal program. It used the first half of the allotment, which arrived this spring, for the bonuses.
Officials there maintain that the courthouse in Bridgeport was one of the only ones in the state to remain open throughout the pandemic, which began in March 2020, and the bonuses were warranted.
“There were a lot of things you couldn’t use it for,” said Jeff Metz of Angora, the chairman of the three-member Morrill County Board. “We ran across that one of the allowable expenses was hazard pay. We felt that fit with what we were trying to do.”
“It sent a nice message to the employees,” Metz added.
A couple of Morrill County residents, when reached by The World-Herald on Friday, had more mixed views.
“Holy cow,” said former Bridgeport Mayor Jack Berg, who had not heard about the bonuses. Later, he called back to say it was probably justified.
“I’ll take a check for ten grand,” said Josh Schwartzkopf, who runs a tire store in Bridgeport.
But county employees likely deserved a bonus more “than the people sitting on their butts collecting my (tax) money,” Schwartzkopf said in reference to people collecting enhanced unemployment benefits.
Most of the state’s 93 counties, including those in the Omaha area, are still pondering how to use their slice of the roughly $376 million ARPA funds earmarked for counties, said Jon Cannon, the executive director of the Nebraska Association of County Officials.
Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy Counties — the state’s three largest counties — have created committees or task forces to help decide how to allocate their funds. Officials in Dakota, Saunders and Nuckolls Counties said they’re still pondering what to do.
The state recently held a public hearing to solicit ideas on how to spend the $1 billion it expects to receive, and Gov. Pete Ricketts says he’ll introduce a proposal in January on how to spend it. The City of Omaha expects to receive $112 million and has already compiled a list of priorities reflecting public comments, led by “public space improvements.”
Most of the county officials interviewed expressed frustration that the ARPA funds can’t be used, under current guidelines, for normal county expenses, such as maintaining roads, replacing bridges or buying equipment.
But that may change. The U.S. Senate recently advanced a proposal to allow ARPA funding for regular government services, and the House of Representatives will consider a similar measure.
So some county officials are waiting and watching. Time is on their side — counties, cities and states have until Dec. 31, 2024, to obligate their ARPA funds. They have until the end of 2026 to actually spend the money.
“One of the things we preach to our folks is that we’re not in a rush, we have time,” said Cannon, of the county officials group.
Right now, the money can be used for four general purposes:
Responding to public health emergency and the negative impacts of COVID-19, such as providing grants to impacted businesses.
Maintaining government services impacted by a reduction in tax revenue caused by the pandemic. While there weren’t losses in property taxes, some counties saw a drop in lodging taxes, according to Cannon, when people stopped booking hotel and motel stays.
Water, sewer or broadband infrastructure. Cannon said that right now, counties might be able to use funds for box culverts if the projects qualify under federal Clean Water Act guidelines, but can’t use the money for bridge replacement. Several rural counties are interested in using funds for expanding broadband services, he said, but the state has devoted $40 million over the next two years to that effort, so there are questions about how the county ARPA funds might fit in.
Premium pay for essential employees, such as the bonuses given in Morrill County. Elected county officials are not eligible for the bonuses because their pay is set by statute.
Cannon said he expects several counties to provide at least some bonuses for county employees. But other county officials were less sure of that idea.
Bill Conley, chief financial officer for Sarpy County, said he didn’t think employee bonuses were under consideration there because the county has fielded plenty of proposals for “really worthwhile,” one-time projects.
Sarpy County set up an ARPA webpage and is soliciting ideas for how to spend the money. Ideas must be submitted by the end of the day Sunday. Conley said the county has already spent about $300,000 of its $36 million allotment for emergency housing assistance, and food and clothing for the needy.
Saunders County Clerk Patti Lindgren said her office employees probably deserved a bonus because, during September 2020, they all worked in isolation in their third-floor office after one worker tested positive. The office was closed to the public except via telephone calls or drop boxes, she said, but employees continued to do their work by entering through a separate entrance and at different times to avoid exposing others. Lindgren said she came in at night to work after other staff had left.
But when asked if she supported hazard pay for county workers, Lindgren said she wasn’t so sure.
“I’m a little old-fashioned,” she said. “You do what you gotta do.”
Dakota County Board member Bob Giese said his board is in no hurry to make a decision, given the far-off deadline. And Nuckolls County Clerk Carrie Miller said board members in her rural county are eyeing ARPA funds to improve internet service, but they’re a long way from making a decision.
Morrill County appears to be one of the few counties to have decided how to spend its initial allocation so far.
Board member Josh Schmidt of Bridgeport said he supported the hazard pay idea “to recognize what the employees and their families went through to keep it as close to business as usual as we could.”
The courthouse was never closed to the public in Morrill County, he said. But elsewhere, many counties closed their offices or made business “by appointment only” when the pandemic initially hit.
Then, in June 2020, Ricketts ordered all county offices to open and prohibited them from requiring protective masks to be worn, or risk losing part of the $100 million allocated to the state from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. The edict, which drew national attention, prompted the Lancaster County Courthouse to drop a proposed mask mandate.
At the time, Ricketts’ spokesman Taylor Gage said that while the governor encouraged the wearing of masks, he didn’t think it was an appropriate reason to deny someone taxpayer services.