The Kosciusko County commissioners had a special meeting Wednesday morning to discuss county policy as it relates to the coronavirus pandemic and Gov. Eric Holcomb’s stay-at-home order. Pictured (L to R) are county attorney Chad Miner, Commissioner Bob Conley, county Auditor Michelle Puckett (in back behind Conley), Commissioners Brad Jackson and Cary Groninger and County Administrator Marsha McSherry. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
The Kosciusko County commissioners had a special meeting Wednesday morning to discuss county policy as it relates to the coronavirus pandemic and Gov. Eric Holcomb’s stay-at-home order. Pictured (L to R) are county attorney Chad Miner, Commissioner Bob Conley, county Auditor Michelle Puckett (in back behind Conley), Commissioners Brad Jackson and Cary Groninger and County Administrator Marsha McSherry. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
County commissioners and several department heads discussed Wednesday at length how much county employees would get paid if Gov. Eric Holcomb’s stay-at-home order went beyond the original two-week period.

The governor’s order, which was issued Monday and went into effect at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday until at least 11:59 p.m. April 6, requires all people to stay home except for essential travel like grocery shopping or medical care and for all nonessential workers to also not go to work.

At the end of the discussion, the three commissioners unanimously approved Commissioner Cary Groninger’s motion that, “starting April 7, payroll would go to full-time or full pay for all employees that are at work, that are essential employees that are working; and those that are at home would receive two-thirds of their pay for a duration of 10 weeks from that April 7.”

During the commissioners’ March 17 meeting, they approved a “Health Pandemic Emergency Closing” personnel policy. The policy stated the commissioners “will identify essential employees that will be required to work or telecommute during the health pandemic emergency closing. ... Essential employees that are required to work will receive payment for hours actually worked at the rate of time and a half.” All other employees for the two weeks will be paid their regular pay.

Starting their meeting Wednesday, the commissioners approved an ordinance amending the policy. Commissioner Brad Jackson said the commissioners’ thinking was that if the shutdown lasts longer than two weeks, the county has to be prepared for that.

County attorney Chad Miner said the relevant portions of the policy amendment says that essential employees will be determined based upon the circumstances of each health pandemic; and essential employees that are required to work in-person, as opposed to by way of telecommuting, will be compensated for hours actually worked by receiving one-half hour of comp time for each hour actually worked, in addition to the regular pay provided. Everyone else will receive their regular pay, he said.

The commissioners also unanimously approved the Federal Emergency Family Medical Leave Expansion policy and the Federal Emergency Paid Sick Leave. County Administrator Marsha McSherry said they’re federal mandates which will go into effect April 2, but the commissioners could adopt early. It’s a temporary policy until Dec. 31.

Commissioner Brad Jackson said, “This is really, in effect, a non-decision decision because the federal government is going to enact it regardless, and if we enact it now, we’ll fall under it sooner. I think that gives us a definite way, if we’re open, and people can then take off. It gives us a definite way to deal with it. To me, there’s no point in us trying to come up with something of our own.”

Another ordinance the commissioners approved was the claims policy, which allows Jackson, as president of the commissioners, to sign claims during the shutdown. The commissioners will then ratify the claims at their next meeting, whenever that should occur. The next commissioners’ regular meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday, but the commissioners might cancel that if necessary due to the coronavirus.

For the last bit of business, Jackson said it was the “hardest” thing to discuss. “What revisions do we want to make, if any, to the closure policy. If this turns into a three-month thing, we can’t pay employees time and a half. We just can’t.”

He invited all the county employees present to weigh in on it.

Groninger said the only thing they didn’t know was what the bill the U.S. Congress was trying to get through says and how that might affect state and county employees, if at all.

Cathy Reed, human resources specialist for the county, said some of the counties in the area are providing their employees two-thirds of their wages if they’re at home self-quarantining, while those who have to come in to work are getting paid 100% of their normal pay without any extra.

Groninger said the two-thirds pay is “pretty much what the public sector is going to be forced with.”

County Auditor Michelle Puckett agreed with Reed on what other counties are doing, but added that “this is going to take government a year, two to three years, to recover from. Our revenues are going to get hit. The tax dollars that we’re usually collecting on the 10th – we typically collect 60% of our revenues in tax dollars on May 10. Only 15% of those revenues come from escrow payments. This year, we will not be getting that 60% May 10 because we have the 60-days no-penalty extended to July 10. So our revenues are going to be down in the spring.”

She said people are already asking for forms to appeal their property tax assessments for next year because businesses are closed down.

“So we’re going to have lots of appeals, lots of fights to change taxes this year for what we’re going to collect next year,” Puckett said.

With people not currently working, and not paying into their payroll taxes because they’re laid off, she said that’s where the county’s County Option Income Tax and Economic Development Income Tax funds come from so they will be down.

In total, the county collects about $14 million a year for COIT and EDIT.

“It takes county government and government as a whole a long time to recover when there’s a crisis,” Puckett warned.

She said it’s difficult to tell county employees to stay home and they’ll collect 100% of their wages when the people who pay the taxes that pay the county workers are staying home and not getting paid.

“So I think two-thirds is a good compromise. That’s what the federal government is looking at. That’s what other local governments, counties are looking at. But it’s going to be several years before we can get back to what January normal was for us because the way our revenue was hit, and the way they are estimated for our income tax returns, our revenues are going to be down for a while,” Puckett concluded.

The commissioners and the department heads present discussed the amount, and number of weeks at different rates, for about an hour before agreeing to the motion.