By Stefanie Jackson – Northampton supervisors spent their Aug. 25 work session brainstorming how to spend the second round of federal funding the county will receive from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act.
Northampton qualified to receive more than $2 million in CARES funds, distributed in two installments of more than $1 million each, to cover expenses related to COVID-19, to be shared with towns based on population.
Northampton County Administrator Charlie Kolakowski’s top spending recommendation was providing broadband internet access to the homes of children and adults learning and working remotely.
“It’s critical. The idea that students should … be sitting in a car, parked outside the library or any location, and that’s how they’re doing their schoolwork, is not the way they should be getting educated,” he said.
“People working from home have to do the same thing,” and the lack of broadband access will discourage people from moving to Northampton County in the future, Kolakowski added.
There’s one problem: the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority may not be able to install more fiber optic cable and connect homes in time for the Dec. 31 deadline to spend the CARES funds.
Finding private contractors to do the work could also prove difficult, Kolakowski said.
Supervisor Betsy Mapp suggested coordinating the project with Northampton schools, which have until Sept. 2021 to spend their CARES money.
Supervisor John Coker said that was a “great idea.”
He suggested Northampton might be able to meet its deadline to spend the CARES money if it can prepay the cost of broadband installation.
Coker also suggested the county may be able to help pay the monthly costs of the broadband service.
Kolakowski said Northampton shouldn’t limit itself to one internet service provider for the project. The goal should be to “just get people hooked up.”
He also suggested giving $75,000 to Northampton County Social Services for citizens who have been severely impacted by COVID-19 and need help with rent, homelessness, joblessness, or food security.
Oliver Bennett, chairman of the board of supervisors, was concerned about “the other side” of the rent issue – landlords who aren’t getting paid but still have business expenses.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Virginia allowed a ban on evictions effective through Sept. 7.
Kolakowski said the eviction ban could be extended until spring. He acknowledged that the longer people don’t pay rent, the more they owe, and the harder it becomes for them to pay the full amount.
Some renters can’t pay because they’re out of work due to COVID-19. But there are also “folks that are working but for whatever reason want to use the COVID as an opportunity not to live up to their obligations,” Bennett said.
“I believe in helping folks that need help, but I have a problem helping folks that … are not doing the best that they can,” he said.
Coker pointed out that Mozella Francis, director of Northampton County’s social services, makes sure assistance reaches those who need it most.
“When she gives money, I mean, people are down and out. Usually, they’ve been thrown out of their house and they’re living in a car, or they’re living some place where they shouldn’t be living,” he said.
Sheriff David Doughty was concerned that his dispatchers and support staff missed out on CARES-funded hazard pay because they do not interact with the public and have no possible direct exposure to COVID-19.
However, the dispatchers and support staff interact with deputies who are exposed, he noted.
Doughty had contacted Congresswoman Elaine Luria’s office, and her legislative team determined the dispatchers and support staff qualify for hazard pay because they are “essential workers.”
It would cost about $13,500 to pay nine police dispatchers and support staff an extra $2.50 per hour for every hour they worked from March 15 to June 30.
Kolakowski was uncertain that police dispatchers and support staff qualify to receive CARES money, and he recommended providing the hazard pay using county funds.
Some supervisors were hesitant to commit the funds without knowing which other departments may request hazard pay for COVID-19.
Coker called the sheriff’s team a “well-oiled machine. These people work together every day, they all work to keep this county safe, and they do a damn good job.”
“I want to make this team stay together, work together, and feel good about each other, how we feel about them too,” he said.
Coker called it “ludicrous” to delay a decision.
He made a motion for the sheriff to come to the next supervisors meeting Sept. 8 and propose a budget amendment for the hazard pay, with supervisors considering hazard pay for other departments afterward.
The motion was seconded and passed unanimously.