By Bill Spinks

Grant money for the upcoming 2020 election was on the table for the Ellis County Commissioners’ Court during Tuesday afternoon’s meeting — but the discussion centered around the unknown strings potentially attached to these funds.

The court approved a resolution allowing the county to apply for three separate grants and authorized County Judge Todd Little to make the applications — but over the objections of Precinct 3 Commissioner Paul Perry, who voted no over concerns about any potential federal government requirements, specifically about contact tracing of patients who test positive for COVID-19.

County elections administrator Jana Onyon told commissioners that the three grants that are available to counties are provided through the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the 2018 Election Security Grant, and the 2020 Elections Security Grant. The deadline to apply for the CARES Act grant is June 15, which necessitated a court vote because the next scheduled meeting is June 16.

Onyon said the funds available through the CARES grant total more than $165,000, with the county matching that to the amount of $33,000. The 2018 Election Security Grant provides $40,000 with no county match required, and the 2020 Election Security Grant provides $80,000 with a $16,000 county match. Little said the total match of $49,000 is provided for in the budget.

Commissioners and public speakers raised concerns about contact tracing of patients who test positive for COVID-19. The court in previous meetings had stated its opposition to some forms of contact tracing as an invasion of the public’s privacy.

Perry said there are items that have not been spelled out or have been redacted on the CARES Act grant contract.

“We can have whatever resolution we want here,” Perry said. “But once you take the federal money, you’re under federal control. That has been proven time and time and time again historically. Sometimes that control is not onerous. Other times they come at you with stuff.”

Later, Perry added, “Once you take the money, you’ve also swallowed the hook, and you can get jerked out of the water at the federal government’s leisure if that is the case. We don’t know.”

But Precinct 2 Commissioner Lane Grayson said he was confident that the wording of the court’s resolution was free of any ties to contact tracing, and the court can back out of the grant if something came up that the court objected to. Little concurred, saying the county can always send the money back.

The CARES Act grant covers any additional election expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Onyon said, such as purchase of personal protective equipment for election workers and sanitation of polling places.

The two election security grants provide for additional voting equipment and enhancements to the voter registration system. Onyon said the unspent amount of these grants must be returned, but the county will not have to match the returned funds.

Commissioners Grayson and Perry both expressed concerns about expansion of voting by mail. But Onyon told them the state’s vote-by-mail policy is not changing; the requirements to be eligible to vote by mail — being 65 years of age or older, disabled, overseas military and other requirements that are already spelled out — will remain the same as in the past.

Also on Tuesday, the court unanimously voted to table a separate item that provided more than $3.4 million in reimbursement to Ellis County through the CARES Act.

County emergency management coordinator Samantha Pickett said the money would reimburse the county for medical expenses, public health expenses, disinfection of public areas, overtime for first responders, drive-through testing sites and other COVID-19-related expenses.

Little said the Texas Department of State Health Services already conducts contact tracing, but because Ellis County does not have a health department, the state is already doing it on behalf of the county and has been doing so for some time for diseases such as SARS, hepatitis-B and AIDS.

Perry added that he is not against contact tracing in general, but that he is concerned about technology that could be applied for other purposes.

Other items

• Amber West was sworn in by Judge Little as an assistant auditor.

• The court approved final plats on four pieces of property: a 5.566-acre property on the east side of Andrews Road near Ennis; a 12-acre property bordering the south side of FM 983 near Hunsucker Road in Red Oak’s extraterritorial jurisdiction; a 22-acre, five-lot tract located at the intersection of Skrivanek Road and Crisp Road near Ennis; and a 1.5-acre property for commercial use south of the intersection of FM 875 and Westfall Drive in the Midlothian ETJ.

• The county renewed a contract with Comprehensive Medical Inmate Services for just over $1.5 million, a raise of more than five percent over the previous year to match inflation. Commissioners noted that this was one of the items that is hard to budget for every year. Sheriff Chuck Edge told commissioners that the jail population was down, but four inmates were hospitalized.

• Commissioners renewed a lease of copiers with Xerox at an average cost of $2,619 per month, a 12-percent reduction from the previous contract. County purchasing agent E.J. Harbin said the county will receive new, faster and more efficient copiers as a part of the renewal, and added that the county will save a total of $18,772 over the life of the contract.

• The court agreed to use Transunion Risk and Alternative Data Solutions, Inc. for public records products and other services. County attorney Ann Montgomery said the county currently has a contract with the Texas Workforce Commission for matters such as locating witnesses, but the new service provides more real-time data.

• Commissioners agreed on a new two-year ambulance contract with American Medical Response to take effect on Oct. 1. The new contract aligns with the county’s fiscal budget, which begins on the same day.

• The court adopted a new fund balance policy. Auditor Janet Martin proposed to reduce the requirement to 90 days for the general fund, and to remove minimums for special and dedicated funds, in order to give the county more flexibility. Martin said the current policy was adopted in 2011, and part of the policy is that the county general fund must have a minimum balance of 120 days.