County chairman says purchase of trailer kept quiet to avoid public panic
May 14, 2020
The purchase of a refrigerated semi-trailer and the county fund it was paid from were among matters of contention at the Antelope County commissioners' meeting last week.
All five commissioners, several other county officials and others were present in the courthouse meeting room May 5 and the meeting was shared electronically via Zoom. Some of those present were asked to step into the hall at one point, when more than 10 were observed in the room.
Jared Reimers addressed the commissioners electronically from Congressman Adrian Smith's Grand Island office. He presented information and heard concerns from commissioners Regina Krebs, who noted economic concerns small businesses are facing during the pandemic, and Commissioner Dean Smith, who cited issues faced by livestock producers.
Commissioners unanimously approved a disaster proclamation that was tabled in March, in order to have verbiage edited. They decided to keep current Covid-19 protocol in effect at least until the June 2 meeting, including keeping courthouse doors locked and sharing meetings electronically, via Zoom.
County attorney Joe Abler addressed the board about providing personal protective equipment for staff, specifically face masks, when the courthouse reopens.
"We need to put this on our budget if we are going to buy masks, because you can't get masks - you can, but it takes a little while," he said. "The clerk's office, the treasurer's, they don't have a window like I do, that kind of gives us some more protection ... I didn't know if the other offices wanted to ask, if we want to put plastic guards or whatever at their counter(s)."
Commissioner questions included if masks would be provided only to county employees or to the public as well.
"Let's see what happens June 2, just try to be prepared with some masks," chairman Charlie Henery said.
Regarding Abler's suggestion for plastic guards at the office windows, Henery opined, "We've talked about it in the past, it needs to be done, but with this COVID thing I hate to bring a construction crew in."
Commissioner Carolyn Pedersen suggested hanging plastic shower curtains at the customer windows.
As for budget issues for purchase of PPE, Smith said they could be paid from the Inheritance Fund until funds were available, if offices don't have budget remaining, comparing it to last year's flood-recovery expense.
Henery directed the county's Safety Committee to handle the matter.
Sheriff Bob Moore addressed the board about tree removal west of the impound yard. He said Big Timber Tree Service at Verdigre estimated $300 to $500, if jail inmates do cleanup.
Smith questioned county liability issues with inmates doing the work and asked if they would sign waivers. Moore indicated inmate participation would be voluntary, without waivers.
"If they got cut or something, it'd be just like a fight in the jail," the sheriff said. "We've had to haul people out of there because of fights, we had to pay the claim. You guys got a $16,000 claim coming next month."
Moore reported the state had offered to sell the county a radio tower, located along Copenhagen Road in Willow Township, two miles north of the Neligh-Pierce Road, for $1. The tower would be used for installation of a microwave communication system.
Microwave dishes will replace antennas through the Nebraska Regional Interoperability Network, a statewide law enforcement communication system. The dishes have been stored in Norfolk for several years awaiting installation.
"It's a state approved tower, so I know it's met its inspection and the only thing that we will be picking up is the electricity bill will be transferred over to us. All the antennas and the labor have already been taken care of with the NRIN project," he said. "If you could hear the clarity of the system on the microwave versus the radio wave, it's really great, it's got great clarity."
He said the tower would eliminate problems transmitting information to Pierce and Knox counties and indicated Abler agreed to review the contract and report back at the May 11 meeting.
Discussion then turned to the Law Enforcement Center Fund and a $10,000 claim approved last month for a reefer trailer purchased from Boyd's Electric, to serve as a temporary supplemental morgue.
According to Henery, the "2940" fund was set up after the jail was built and started housing prisoners for other counties.
"The auditor actually helped set that account up. That account is, in the eyes of the auditor, it's fine," he said. "I think people say Bob refers to that account as his account. He knows well it's not... Bob had the foresight enough to not house just the Antelope prisoners, but to house prisoners of other places to bring in some income to help the county...We, as commissioners, are in charge of that account. We approve the bills that are paid out of that."
Smith asked, "That account, then, is there for him (Moore) to make a decision that he needs to purchase something without board approval, he can use that as a fallback, a reason you don't have to come to the board to get approval to buy something, go ahead and purchase it and then bring in a claim after it's been located on the property?"
In answer to a question by Henery, Smith affirmed he was referring to the reefer trailer.
"I made that decision," Henery said. "I talked to Bob about it and one reason that we did that and kept it quiet was, see what did happened when it did come out in public?"
After Henery told Smith to remove a "smirk" from his face, Smith said, "You can't quietly approve something without - just the two of you - you cannot do that, absolutely not."
The two commissioners continued to argue, with Henery adding Pedersen knew about the purchase, while Smith asked when the trailer was purchased, when it was located at the county impound yard and when the claim was submitted.
"Was it on our preapproval list Friday night? I can answer that, no it was not. It came at 8:45 Monday night, a $10,000 claim to Boyd's Electric, no specification," Smith said.
"Maybe I did wrong," Henery said. "Maybe you feel, and your constituents feel, that I did wrong, but I did what I felt like should be done for this county by purchasing that trailer. Carolyn and Boyd was (sic) nice enough to do what they had to do to purchase this trailer and get it to where it needed to be."
Pedersen responded as well. "Boyd and I - Boyd had me make out the check," she said. "It was Monday, after Boyd talked to Bob, said, 'I found this reefer for this amount, what do you want to do?'"
Henery said the directive to purchase a trailer came from area morticians, while Moore referenced an email from North Central District Health Department, asking Smith if he didn't get the email.
"It said there was no need for local - or for counties to have to buy anything for cold storage," Smith replied.
Moore added, "That was two of the biggest things that are the issues right now is secondary location if the hospitals overflow and then what do you do if you have an excess for the mortuaries. We're moving into the summer, we have the hot months coming yet, they had no storage for cold, and all I can tell you is that Brockhaus, Ashburn, Snider and Levander, they all thanked me for doing it."
Krebs also weighed in on the trailer purchase.
"As a board member, I don't want to be surprised. On the trailer purchase, that was emergency management decision, whatever that was, but when I don't get any notification except for a new claim, set of claims, at 9 o'clock Monday night, and it's made out to Boyd's, a $10,000 claim...I would have named 103 other things before I came up with what that payment was for. We all have access to email, I have access to texting, we have access to all of this. I would appreciate a heads up when we have a purchase like this and I understand the reason for the purchase ... you work with morticians and that's all fine and wonderful, but now we're sitting here today and we don't know if we can get PPE for our staff, that should be part of what you guys were discussing when we were looking at this," she said.
Moore indicated Bobbie Riser with Region 11 Emergency Management was trying to obtain PPE and "minimal amounts" had been delivered to his office, to be shared with area fire departments. Riser continues to try to find the supplies, according to the sheriff.
"We just had Representative Smith (office staff) ask us on the phone, I mean if this is a problem, either from a federal level, they have insisted that there's plenty of PPE. If we need assistance, maybe we should have been bringing that up to the representative's office," Krebs said. "The other thing is, you guys took the action that you did, I am not at this point arguing that, but at the same time, ...at no point were we updated on the public health side of it, as opposed to planning for the worst case scenario....Having an update from my emergency management team is something that this board should expect in a pandemic situation...Keep us in the loop. The last thing I want is to be walking in the street and surprised by what happens in my county."
Smith responded that Henery had "kept it quiet."
"I realize I've done wrong," Henery said again. "How do I correct that so we can go on?"
Smith suggested he resign.
"I don't think that's the answer, because you didn't put me in here, the people put me in here," Henery answered.
Krebs did not ask for resignation, asking instead for courtesy and more notification on issues.
Henery said, "You will get it from me from now on...I've dealt with floods and all kinds of stuff like that while I've been here, but not something to this extent and I didn't think a $10,000 purchase on this thing to be prepared, I was trying to prevent this backlog of this when Bob contacted me ...We didn't want to create a panic with the public and have it be a problem."
Moore, who serves as the county emergency manager, attempted to placate Krebs, saying he couldn't wait until something happened to look for a solution.
"I understand, but I'm not the public," she concluded.
The conversation then turned to the "2940" account, that currently has more than $400,000 accrued in it. Income from housing prisoners and from contracts to provide law enforcement to villages in the county are deposited in the account. Payouts include food for the prisoners and medical expense for Antelope County's prisoners, while medical expense for boarded prisoners is initially paid from the account but is later reimbursed by the other counties, according to the sheriff.
The funds are separate from the sheriff's office account, funded by taxpayers, that covers routine expenses in the same manner as other county departments. Payne testified the account was set up at the direction of the state auditor's staff and needed to be separate in order to track activity.
Smith contends that part of the fund's balance can be transferred to the county's General Fund.
He said, "$400,000 in an account could be used to offset taxpayer expenses, county road expenses."
Moore, on the other hand, says he needs a "cushion" in case of large medical expenses and the lag time between incurring the expense and reimbursement, in addition to increasing staff at the jail.
"You don't have to have a cushion, we didn't have a cushion in road and budget, in road and bridge, when the storm hit," Smith said. "We had the Inheritance Fund and we can use (it) with a catastrophe at the jail too."
Moore said, "We have a fluctuation of prisoners coming in, so I gotta feed 'em, I'm feeding other counties' prisoners, so I don't want Antelope County tax dollars feeding other prisoners, I don't want Antelope County tax dollars paying for the uniforms and that. We have to, by contract, pay for that medical bill of the other agency at first, then we bill them and they send the check. So, we got to have that money, that cushion in there because that's the only way ... the last two months, we sent out about $42,000 in bills, some of that's going to be medical ...that account has to have flexibility because I don't know. I did not know I was going to have $16,000 medical bill coming in, but I don't have to impact Antelope County taxpayers because we took it from what all these other entities are paying."
Pedersen suggested the board give Moore direction on use of the account.
"I know in the past, we have always been told, when I was on the board, he was told, 'if you need a car go buy a car. If you have budget for it, you don't have to come ask us.' If we need to, now as a board, come see all that, we need to give Bob direction. Do you want him to come, are there certain things you want to allow his office to buy out of that? Which he's been doing, which he needs to do because he is required, and we are required to allow him, to have a budget," she said.
"A budget, not that account," Smith responded.
Henery announced, "Let's end this, let's do what Carolyn said, say what we want Bob to do, and Bob will do it."
Smith asked his peers, "So, everyone is alright that there is $400,000 setting in that account? I just want to be clear."
No one responded.
Another agenda item brought to the board by Smith was a suggestion to put in place a deadline for claims' receipt, in order to give time to process and distribute a report to commissioners in a timely manner. He complimented Payne on trying to accommodate all claims, but said vendors would get used to having a deadline, suggesting a couple months grace period for implementation. He said he needed time to review the "preapproval report" and cited receiving a report on Friday evening, then a new and different one Monday.
Krebs agreed. She said there is no "business time" to address questions she may have when she receives the claims' report at 8:45 Monday evening prior to consideration of claims at 8 a.m. Tuesday morning.
"Do they (department heads) want me to call at midnight, while I'm reviewing it, or six o'clock the next morning?" she asked.
Payne was defensive. She said she had been busy working on election business and "more often than not" when she sends an email message to commissioners, she gets no response. She opined cutting off claims, many that are mailed the first of the month, would result in assessment of finance charges, which she said are not allowed by auditors and result in a time-consuming process to have "charges reversed."
After further discussion, agreement was reached without a deadline. Payne was directed to send a report to commissioners by noon the day prior to the second monthly meeting when claims are approved. Late-arriving claims will be considered separately during the meeting.
Payne told the leaders a couple functions - the judge's account and road and bridge - in the current fiscal year budget are "kind of over." She said she had emailed the auditor and was told the board can authorize transfers to resolve the issues. She also noted she had sent April's expenditure report to commissioners and had talked to a "couple of them" about covering the overages.
"We'll be fine," she said. "Probably next week or next month, probably have to make that motion."
In other business, the commissioners:
~Directed Payne to advertise for clerk of the district court and set interviews during June 2 meeting;
~Reviewed bids for a new lawn mower submitted by Ed Schindler and discussed alternative to hire lawn care service;
~Approved heavy-haul permit resolution;
~Heard request from Dennis Johnson of Plainview to provide access to landlocked property in Section 24 of Willow Township, was advised of actions necessary;
~Heard from road superintendent Aaron Boggs that asphalt at Clearwater and Oakdale had been ground, resulting in 50% more product than anticipated, with costs estimated at $160,000 for about 13,000 ton of product, in addition to some concrete;
~Reviewed asphalt road report and repair plan with Boggs and Casey Dittrich;
~Approved underground permits recommended by Boggs, under 861 Road in Ellsworth Township for Keetle Farms (two permits), 846 Road in Elm Township for Jeremy Martensen, 858 Road in Royal Township for John Allemang, 844 Road (Oakdale Cutacross) in Oakdale Township for Elkhorn Rural Public Power District (install new electric line for new home) and 515 Avenue in Elgin Township for Invenergy (changed location);
~Approved access permits as recommended by Boggs, including temporary one-time permit for Western Area Power Administration, from 510 Avenue on the Holt County line in Clearwater Township; Dick Kester from 848 Road in Clearwater Township, with condition previous access to the west be relinquished; and Dennis Blair from 516 Avenue in Elgin Township;
~Reviewed claim submitted by Darrel Miller for damage to vehicle from asphalt chunk kicked up by another vehicle; and
~Directed payment for Crumly land acquisition claim from the Disaster Fund.