MONTICELLO, Ill. (WCIA) — While the number of counties affected by COVID-19 increases across the state, Piatt County board chairman Ray Spencer has blocked his county’s ability to purchase additional health and cleaning supplies, according to a legal complaint filed against the county board.
Piatt County State’s Attorney Dana Rhoades filed the complaint on Thursday, requesting that the court vacate directives from Spencer to the county’s Emergency Management Agency director, Mike Holmes, that, among other things, have blocked the purchase of gear mandated by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency and barred the agency from communicating with news media.
Following budget talks that spanned weeks and drew protests from taxpayers late last year, Piatt County board members approved a budget that underfunded the county’s EMA department, allotting a full-time department only part-time funding.
On March 14, according to the complaint, Spencer directed Holmes that “whatever COVID-19 supplies were needed, the Director must stay within his part-time 2020 operational budget.”
That budget “does not account for the up-tic in daily work based on the emergency caused by COVID-19,” the complaint states, nor does it include funding to purchase (Environmental Protection Agency)-approved personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies including, but not limited to: masks, gloves, goggles, gowns, antimicrobial cleaning disinfectants and backup supplies of food and water for (Illinois Emergency Management Agency)-mandated quarantine housing plans.”
Additionally, plans to implement a county-wide, emergency mass notification system were halted due to a lack of funding, despite repeated requests to the board to fund a system that exists in counties that border Piatt.
Because that notification system wasn’t implemented within the county, the EMA “must rely upon the news media outlets and social media outlets to inform the public of emergency information and situations,” per the complaint, which noted Spencer has barred the EMA from doing exactly that.
“On December 1, 2019, the PCB Chairman, Ray Spencer, directed the PCEMA director ‘never represent yourself as a spokesperson for the county’…and thereby subjecting the PCEMA Director to professional discipline if the Director were to provide information to the public regarding emergency situations, presumably including COVID-19,” the complaint states.
The complaints noted in Thursday’s legal filing about the EMA’s budget restraints follow multiple financial decisions made by the county board in recent months: While board members did end up approving a deficit budget that underfunded that department, they also debated earlier this year whether they would purchase an office building in Monticello for around $20,000. And in March, county board members also approved the $12,000-hire of a financial advisor and received $300,000 in savings when the county switched health insurance providers.
And while Piatt County may not have any officially-confirmed cases of COVID-19, that could change on any given day: Already, an employee with the Piatt County Sheriff’s Office is quarantining over potential exposure.
In an email, Sheriff David Hunt confirmed that one of his employees had visited a medical provider and was tested for the flu; once the results came back negative, the employee requested to be tested for COVID-19 “because they had possibly been around international citizens from an affected country.”
“The employee made me aware of the facts and I told the employee to stay home,” Hunt wrote.
“The local health department does not have the means to test either,” he added, noting that private medical staff had told his employee that they didn’t have the ability to test for it, either.
Spencer did not immediately respond to calls for comment on Friday; Stephen Willoughby, the lawyer who is representing Spencer on multiple felony charges filed against him earlier this year, was also unavailable for comment.
Regardless of whether of not the county sees any officially-confirmed cases of COVID-19, the legal complaint against the board says its people “have a right to be notified and updated during this health emergency, in order to allow them to make important decisions for the safety of their families” and the county’s EMA director “must be able to perform the functions of his employment to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens in Piatt County.”