County and city elected officials have formed a committee to figure out how best to spend more than $1.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds.

As part of the federal CARES Act, the county is eligible to receive up to $1.2 million in reimbursable funds, money meant specifically to aid in losses or deficiencies experienced as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown.

The city is eligible for another $500,000.

But there was uncertainty early on as to how to spend this money — and what exactly it could be spent on.

Or was the process simply too complicated?

So Kellie Streeter, president of the Knox County Commissioners, pushed for the formation of a committee of city and county officials, those with the Knox County Emergency Management Agency, and the county health department, among others.

That group, she said, met for the first time last week and over the course of about two hours identified several needs — everything from stockpiling personal protective equipment to even buying new laptop computers should employees need to work remotely in the event of a second surge — that could be reimbursed by the federal government.

“To not do everything we can to use this money would, I think, be a disservice to the county,” Streeter said. “We can’t be ill-prepared again.

“So we’re taking all of these needs that we discussed, putting them into an official request form, looking to (legal counsel) to be sure they will be reimbursed, and then I’ll take it to the county council.

“Then we’ll just wait for reimbursement,” she said, “and my understanding is that it’s a pretty quick turnaround.”

Communities can applied for their allotments of CARES funds through the end of the year. It can be used on pretty much any COVID-19 related expenditure, with the exception of any loss of revenue, such as income or property tax revenue.

“It can be as simple as things we should buy if COVID-19 spikes again,” Streeter said during a recent commissioners meeting. “Masks, hand sanitizer, there’s no reason why we can’t buy these things now.”

Streeter said the committee looked back at “lessons learned” during the COVID-19 shutdown, which began in mid-March.

“There are certainly things that we lacked or that created a hardship,” she said. “Things we could prepare for in the event of another COVID surge.”

So Streeter challenged committee members to identify weaknesses felt during the initial shutdown.

County sheriff Doug Vantlin, for instance, realized he had nowhere appropriate to quarantine sick inmates. He also spoke about the benefits of installing air-filtration systems in densely populated areas.

First-responders, too, found that administering CPR in the field during a pandemic is largely difficlt. There are now machines that can offer life-saving measures, thereby limiting contact between EMTs and potentially COVID-19 positive patients.

The county, too, could look at purchasing supplies that could, if necessary, be used to help long-term healthcare facilities in the event of a coronavirus outbreak.

And officials realized that should an outbreak occur at the jail, EMA and E-911 would need to move out, so they’re looking at the possibility of purchasing a kind of mobile command unit.

“We also want to make sure all of our county offices are prepared in the event of another shutdown, so we’ve tasked (IT specialists) to work on our network, our firewall, the potential for additional laptop computers that might be needed to help the do their jobs.”

Mayor Joe Yochum recently told members of the city’s Budget and Finance Committee that he, too, would like to look at the purchase of additional laptops.

He’s also interested in buying new equipment for the fire department as well as stock-piling PPE and purchasing Plexiglass dividers for those who deal with the public.

“So if and when we see another surge in COVID, we’ll be better prepared,” he said.

It’s also possible both the city and county could apply for reimbursement for any additional overtime costs experienced as a result of the first COVID-19 shutdown.

And both city and county officials say they would likely look to coffers, perhaps Rainy Day funds, to make these initial purchases then would use the CARES Act funds to reimburse those funds as necessary.

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