Rogers County commissioners have committed to spending more than $4 million in federal funds for expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than half the money will be used to renovate the Rogers County Jail. The remaining money, nearly $2 million, will go to other agencies in the county for various pandemic-related expenses, according to county records.
In early August, the state of Oklahoma announced that more than $250 million would be available to cities and counties through the federal government's CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Funds. States are in charge of distributing the money, and state officials created a formula based on population. Rogers County will be eligible to receive $4.24 million in reimbursements for pandemic-related expenses. The city of Claremore is eligible for $1.45 million.
County commissioners held a series of special public meetings to determine the biggest priorities for the money. During that process, agencies explained their needs, and the jail became a top priority because of the danger to inmates and staff that COVID-19 presents in confined spaces, Rogers County Board of Commissioners Chairman Ron Burrows said.
"Once you have (COVID-19) positive inmates, it just spreads like crazy," Burrows said. "This remodel will allow us to add more bed space and create some isolation opportunities."
Jail renovation will be done in phases, Burrows said, and will cost more than the Coronavirus Relief Funds the county has allocated for the project. Phase 1 will be about $1.6 million, and will remodel the inmate booking area. Phase 2 will cost $1.5 million and will convert the jail's lobby and some office areas into additional bed space.
The county plans to use about $2.4 million of the federal funds to pay for the jail project. The remaining amount -- about $670,000 -- could be paid through use taxes, said Burrows, who represents District 3. He said use taxes would be no additional tax on residents, because they're charged on goods coming from outside Rogers County.
"Our use tax collections have been healthy," said Burrows.
Construction work on the jail is expected to begin in October, Burrows said. The county is considering additional work after the first two phases, which could increase the cost to $3.7 million.
The courthouse, the sheriff's office, emergency management, the health department and the election board will be among the recipients of about $1.8 million in federal funding the county is allocating.
A project that needed immediate attention was remodeling the election board, Burrows said. The election board, 415 W. 1st St., will have more visitors as the Nov. 3 election approaches. The county wanted to help "staff and volunteers and voters coming in so they will be in a safe environment," Burrows said.
He said one of the goals was a "no-touch environment." With that in mind, two sliding doors will be installed at the entrance and exit. Burrows said the entire front of the building would change, and in that process, the county would address a compliance issue related to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The election board renovations will cost about $185,000. The election board also will receive an additional $13,000 for other expenses, including $2,800 for hand sanitizer.
Among the county allocations is $470,000 for a communications tower in Chelsea. A few years ago, Burrows said, the county spent $3.5 million on radios to help connect agencies in different towns in the county. Burrows said there is a weak signal in the northern part of Rogers County that kept first responders or law enforcement from communicating effectively.
He said the pandemic made it “blatantly clear” the situation had to be addressed as officers, fire departments or medical responders were arriving to scenes without knowing if someone has symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19.
“This radio system has to be in place to safeguard our law enforcement and first responders,” Burrows said.
County commissioners identified spending priorities during special meetings. Regularly scheduled meetings included updates on COVID-19, but special meetings to address spending priorities became necessary because of the time they required, Burrows said.
"They ran sometimes as long as our Monday meeting, or longer, because of the discussion on what the needs were," Burrows said. "It gave us an opportunity to focus in just on CARES Act money."
Burrows said spending guidelines are strict, and the money must be used on projects that wouldn't have occurred in the absence of the pandemic. He said expenditures would be audited by the federal government -- the provider of the funds -- and the state government -- the distributor of the funds.
The reimbursement process is time-consuming, and Burrows says he believes some funds may go unclaimed.
"Smaller towns and cities don't have the resources to commit to that," Burrows said, noting that the portal to upload documents for reimbursements closes at the end of October.
At that point, the state could face a decision on what to do with unclaimed funds. Federal regulations allow states to claim Coronavirus Relief Funds for costs incurred by Dec. 30. The remainder of the money must be returned.
Oklahoma's formula provided $77.08 per person in cities and counties. Population data was from 2019 census estimates, and counties' allocations were based on residents living in unincorporated areas. Rogers County's allocation was based on a population of 55,064 residents. The city of Claremore's allotment was based on a population of 18,743.
Burrows compared it to grant funding, and said it would be "the most heavily audited grant in the history of grants, because there's so much money."