Public safety agencies have a unique responsibility during the pandemic. As essential businesses, they are open and must respond to emergency situations, interacting with St. Joseph residents on a daily basis. This has led to significant pandemic-related expenses.
Many of these expenses were reimbursed through Buchanan County CARES Act funds, but there still were a number of purchases that were out of pocket. It’s a price that has to be paid to keep St. Joseph safe.
“You’re looking at the police department, fire department, and it’s gonna be a big number (of expenses),” said Buchanan County Sheriff Bill Puett. “I don’t think anybody’s happy about it or wants it to be, but you’re just trying to keep everybody safe and healthy as possible.”
The St. Joseph Fire Department spent $120,652.95 on pandemic-related costs. A little more than $84,500 was spent on overtime due to staff quarantining and the acquisition and delivery of personal protective equipment throughout Northwest Missouri. The remaining $36,000 was spent on equipment and PPE, including masks, gowns, gloves and ultraviolet lights to disinfect fire trucks.
To receive CARES Act funds, companies were required to submit a form to the Buchanan County Commissioners’ Office detailing how the money was to be spent.
The county received $10.2 million in CARES Act funds in April and has allocated almost all of it to businesses in need. Few of the requests were denied.
However, not all businesses received the total amount they initially requested. The fire department asked for $120,000 but was only allocated $80,000.
The county commissioners said this was because they were unsure if overtime expenses were covered by the CARES Act and could be reimbursed.
“Overtime was really in question,” said Lee Sawyer, the Buchanan County’s presiding commissioner. “Early on in the process, that was kind of something that we hadn’t gotten any confirmation that that would be something we can reimburse.”
Bill Lamar, the emergency manager, said the pandemic has been difficult. With some firefighters quarantining, the work schedule is constantly changing.
“If we have people off that needed to be quarantined or needed to isolate, obviously we need to keep the fire trucks open, so crews might have to come from an overtime shift,” said Lamar.
But the fire department isn’t the only public safety agency that has experienced difficulties.
The Buchanan County Emergency Medical Services interacts with many COVID-19-positive patients. It has spent $27,600 on powered air-purifying respirators, safety glasses, masks, gowns, UV lights and disinfectant. The full amount was reimbursed through CARES Act funds.
The St. Joseph Police Department installed new communication consoles to make sure 911 dispatchers were six feet apart. A partition for the receptionist in the lobby also was built. Both expenses, totaling about $159,000, were reimbursed by the county through CARES Act funds.
The police department also received federal Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding of $96,453 from the Office of Justice Programs. Just more than $51,000 was spent on PPE, UV lights, a temperature station and hand sanitizer. The remainder will be spent on PPE, but the department is waiting to make sure it is covered for any unforeseen expenses, according to Capt. Richard Eaton.
The Buchanan County Sheriff’s Office has spent the most money of any public safety agency during the pandemic thanks to the jail and its inmates. All pandemic-related expenses totaled $484,614.32.
The majority of that amount is for jail renovations. Puett is adding 10 new cells for COVID-19 isolation and mental health incidents, which costs $429,355. An additional $25,800 bought UV lights and PPE. Both of those expenses were reimbursed through the county’s CARES Act funds.
However, the sheriff’s office did have to pay $29,459.32 for additional PPE, disinfectant and COVID-19 tests out of their own budget.
“$30,000 is a significant number,” said Puett. “That’s almost the salary of one detention deputy. Our non-sworn detention deputies is $31,000, so, I mean, you’re talking about a salary of an entire person.”
Many public safety agencies were forced into these expenses because they didn’t have any other option.
“We knew there were businesses that were affected,” Sawyer said. “We were just proud of the fact that we got right on it, got some money into some of these businesses that were really affected, got reimbursement to the fire department and police and ambulance and other folks that really were affected.”
During the past 10 months, these agencies had no other choice but to go into work every day to protect local residents.
“We have to come to work, we have to continue to respond to calls for service, we have to take care of the inmates, we have to take care of the courthouse,” Puett said. “We’re required to be here and be here every day. We have to have the PPE, we have to have the hand sanitizer, the disinfectant to make sure that the public is safe when they come in or when we’re out there working.”