MONTICELLO, Ill. (WCIA) — Piatt County board members voted unanimously Friday to add additional funding to the county’s Emergency Management Agency in the wake of a COVID-19 pandemic.
The vote came a day after officials announced the county’s first officially-confirmed case of coronavirus, and two weeks after State’s Attorney Dana Rhoades filed a legal complaint against the board that, among other things, said board chair Ray Spencer had prevented emergency COVID-19-related spending in the county and prevented EMA director Mike Holmes from acting as a spokesperson for the county.
All six board members voted in favor of increasing the county’s EMA budget by $36,188 for the next 45 days.
The move came after Spencer had originally said emergency COVID-19 purchases had to stay within the department’s part-time budget, according to the legal complaint filed two weeks ago.
The budget increase will fund a number of emergency purchases, including Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control Prevention-approved cleaning agents for the county courthouse and county building: While the courthouse is stocked with cleaning supplies, none of them are listed as federally-approved to kill coronavirus. And a result of budget cuts to the county building’s custodial needs last year, the county building is not stocked with similar supplies either — although Friday’s vote was aimed at correcting that.
While the majority of the expenditures won’t be recurring costs, some of the line items approved Friday were for items previously requested during budget talks late last year.
Among those: A county-wide notification system intended to supersede social media as the county’s primary method of quickly sending emergency notifications en masse.
Although the roughly-$5,000 expenditure was first requested for the county last year, plans to implement the system were halted after board members last year approved a budget that allotted a full-time EMA only part-time funding.
Even if there hadn’t been a COVID-19 emergency, the county’s EMA funding would have dried up by June anyway, board members heard Friday.
Board members, as well as Decatur-based lawyer Ed Flynn who represents them in the COVID-19 response complaint and coordinated Friday’s teleconference meeting, also addressed a restriction placed on Holmes by Spencer on December 1 that prevented him from representing himself “as a spokesperson for the county”, with Flynn saying he did not interpret that as an official “gag order.”
“Just for clarification, the State’s Attorney’s Office, in the filing that led to where we are today, used the term ‘gag order’ in quotes to explain a directive that was given to Mr. Holmes by Ray Spencer,” Dobson said. According to that directive, “…He could never represent himself as a spokesperson for the county. That sounds like a gag order to me. That is why we used that term in the pleading.”
Spencer denied the directive was intended as a gag order; by the end of the meeting, Flynn said he believed “everyone concurs that (among) Mr. Holmes’ responsibilities are to communicate the things that are necessary to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Piatt County.”
Added Rhoades: “I think it’s clear the communication restraints have been lifted.”
And while Spencer said he “commended the board for coming together” just before the board’s vote on the budget expansion, member Randy Shumard was perhaps the most vocal regarding his support for the EMA department.
“…I just wanted to make it perfectly clear that we are going to back EMA 100 percent,” he said. “Our responsibility is to take care of the citizens of Piatt County. Just point-blank: Give the guy some money and let him operate and let’s hope we can get through this without a lot of lives lost. Our most important job we were elected to do is protect our citizens. …Let’s get it done.”