MANSFIELD -- Richland County commissioners may consider spending $500,000 in coronavirus relief funds to help facilitate mobile learning in the county's schools.
Commissioner Tony Vero said Friday, after another meeting with local school superintendents, the county would like to secure mobile internet hotspots for individual students to use at home when the 2020-2021 school year begins.
"The superintendents have asked if commissioners are willing to go forward with the project," Vero said. "I have not spoken to my fellow commissioners yet, but I imagine that would be the case.
The districts, which got re-opening guidelines from Gov. Mike DeWine last week, are still working out academic plans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Vero said each district will likely be a mix of in-classroom and online sessions.
Richland County has received $2,045,346 in federal CARES Act funds that were passed through the state government. Vero said that number could go up by as much as $4 million more as the state releases additional funds.
Vero said he has asked each superintendent to tell him by July 17 how many mobile hotspots are needed in each district to assist students without internet access.
Vero said he and the districts are working with the North Central Ohio Computer Cooperative and also T-Mobile on the project. Each district will have its own account for the effort.
"Once we have the number, the county will issue a check to each school district and the devices will be shipped to them," Vero said.
He said the individual hotspot for each family was the preferred internet access method.
"The biggest issue with central locations is transportation," he said. "How do some of the students get there?
"There is also a side benefit. Education is the driver, but this program could provide general internet connectivity for families who otherwise may not have it. It could help with online job searches, online banking and more ... things other people may take for granted," Vero said.
During Thursday's commissioners' meeting, Vero said there is updated guidance from the federal and state governments that CARES Act funds sent to local governments can also be used for public safety salaries, including the Richland County Sheriff's Office and jail staff.
He said federal guidance makes it clear that would be an approved usage of the funds Congress approved in March. Vero said the state interprets it "more narrowly" and recommends commissioners approve a resolution showing the positions being funded with CARES dollars meet the criteria and include job descriptions.
Vero said he has begun drafting that resolution.
Richland County Auditor Pat Dropsey, who expressed concerns in early June the money came with "too many strings attached," said Thursday he still has concerns, although those concerns are fewer.
"From an auditor's standpoint, until we get more guidance from the federal and state government ... I am always going to be concerned until we get through the state audit next year," Dropsey said. "We are still waiting on guidance from the state auditor's office.
"The problem I will we have is we would have three different sets of rules and common sense won't prevail unless we force it to prevail," Dropsey said.
Dropsey said his office would not release any of the CARES Act funds until its usage has been documented, explained and presented to commissioners.
The commissioners did unanimously approve Thursday releasing funds to reimburse county departments for COVID-19 expenses related to plexiglass, cleaning supplies, etc., dating back to March 1.
Commissioner Marilyn John said she had begun discussions with Jodie Perry, president & CEO of the Richland Area Chamber & Economic Development, on a program using CARES Act funds that would provide grants to businesses that meet eligibility requirements.
"If we partner on the program with Chamber from an administrative standpoint, it would allow for other jurisdictions in the county -- cities, villages -- to contribute from their own CARES Act funds to form one pool," John said.
Vero said, "There is plenty of need for this first round of funding."
Also on Thursday, commissioners:
-- Discussed with Human Resources Director Kelly Christiansen and Jenny Phelps the ongoing comprehensive wage study for county employees. The effort began in September 2019, but has been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The county is working with Clemans-Nelson & Associates in an effort they said will identify differences between agencies and to make the county more competitive in terms of salary in hopes of better retaining talented employees.
-- approved the Richland County Board of Elections filing paperwork necessary to secure $96,136 in CARES Act funds through the Ohio Secretary of State for any needed protocols and expenses related to the Nov. 3 election during the COVID-19 pandemic.
-- adopted the 2021 tax budget as required by state law.
-- approved an agreement with the Village of Shiloh to provide law enforcement assistance through the sheriff's department.