Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.
Persistence was the word Kelli Scott, Calhoun County Administrator, used last year to describe what it was going to take for county employees to continue to provide the same level of services to the county’s more than 134,000 residents in the face of an ongoing pandemic.
The year 2021, she says, was a time of regrouping and recognizing the important role county government plays when there are emergencies such as those that were created by the continued presence of COVID-19 and its emerging variants. Scott says her staff and employees, like millions of Americans in the workforce, learned to adapt
to a new way of work to create better outcomes for themselves and county residents.
“Last year, we all sort of thought that we would emerge from this pandemic and get back to doing all of the things we’d put on hold,” Scott says.
It became instead a year of rededication with less of a focus on a direct pandemic response and more of a focus on immediate rebuilding and what was being done at the county long-term. This was happening while Scott was navigating the impact of the pandemic on the county’s General Fund Operating budget.
“It was a confusing, unpredictable year,” she says. “We thought it would be more straightforward and that there would be a way out of the pandemic, but it got more complicated and we still needed to convene a unified command team and communicate with the public and our employees about what we were seeing with COVID cases and what we could do to make sure the needs of all residents were being met.”
This was all being done with the expectation that there would soon be a return to in-person meetings and opportunities for residents to take care of business with the county face-to-face. While the warmer months brought a brief reprieve and made people feel more comfortable about going back to a more normal way of working and coming into county offices for such things as making payments or obtaining a marriage license the onset of colder temperatures brought with it an increase in COVID cases that has now been exacerbated by variants, which health officials say are more easily spread.
Kelli Scott, Calhoun County adminstrator
Going back to virtual and contactless ways of operating again became the norm, but by this time Scott says she thinks people appreciated the ability to get business done online.
There also was a lot more recognition of the importance of having access to county parks, which are maintained by the county. That maintenance received more attention and funding.
Scott says improvements were made to the parks and services for the county’s seniors and veterans, among the most isolated and economically fragile groups, also received some much-needed attention.
Through federal stimulus dollars focused on COVID response, Scott says the county was able to create even more supportive services for residents. She says the earmarking of these federal funds to counties throughout Michigan, including Calhoun, indicated to her the high value federal and state government places on services provided by individual counties. Because of these stimulus dollars, there were opportunities to re-direct funds to areas of higher need.
As an example, Scott cites Senior Services, fully supported by a millage, “which used the money it saved on transportation services that were not in huge demand to address increased demand in other areas.”
A new year, a new set of challenges
Looking ahead to 2022, Scott says these are among the major initiatives the county will be focusing on:
• The continuation of planning for the development of a countywide public transit system. She says this gained momentum in 2021 and “we have a solution that now makes sense.”
• The ongoing work of a Broadband Task Force established in 2021 to develop a countywide Internet system.
• The replacement of the county’s current payroll and finance systems to create greater efficiencies and responsiveness, behind the scenes.
More visible is the election of a new Board of Commissioners.
Calhoun County Administrator Kelli Scott
“With redistricting, there will be a couple of vacancies and we expect a couple of new leaders. We also have a new Emergency Management Services director so that will be an opportunity to reevaluate situations like our COVID response which is very much on everyone’s mind so that we know how to be in the best position to respond to crises,” Scott says.
In addition to new Emergency Service leadership, the county will be filling its Election Coordinator position which became vacant with the retirement
in December of Teri Leow.
“Those are some of the larger projects we’re working on in addition to continuing to deploy ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds,” Scott says. “The Board of Commissioners has been appropriating out the $26 million we received in ARPA funds in different phases. We have $9 million yet to allocate over the next two years.”
Scott says she and other county leaders “are trying to make sure that we continue to get input on the remaining use of ARPA funds
. There’s a lot right now up in the air and we’re waiting for the state to allocate their ARPA funds throughout the state.”
Those state funds could be used to help defray the cost of the public transit and broadband initiatives, she says.
The county was given three years to spend its allocation under ARPA funding guidelines.
Scott says the majority of the county’s ARPA funds will be used for internal projects and for its work with external community organizations to get things done. Scott says more than $17 million has been appropriated since last year and is being used for community projects in 2022 and 2023.
These projects include:
• $3.5 million to respond to COVID from a health and economic standpoint;
• $2 million to Battle Creek Unlimited for renovations to the McCamly Hotel; and
• $700,000 to the Calhoun County Land Bank Authority for large-scale housing projects; and more than $700,000 for mental health initiatives led by organizations like Summit Pointe.
Another $1.1 million has been allocated to the county road department and $4 million was earmarked for public safety to minimize the risk to inmates and county jail staff of exposure to COVID-19 through the creation of negative-pressure cells, improved airflow, and touchless bathroom fixtures.
None of these expenditures would have been possible without the ARPA funds, $4 million of which are being used to manage structural budget deficits that began in 2019 and were exacerbated by COVID.
“Our total annual general operating budget is $46 million,” Scott says. “We had $4 million in ARPA funds to balance the budget. That’s a one-time thing. We have to create some long-term budget strategies this year.”
Attracting and retaining
Like employers throughout the United States, Calhoun County has not been immune to the worker shortages that are being attributed to COVID. Filling open positions and keeping those employees is also on the list of 2022 priorities, Scott says.
“We have 30 vacant positions right now and departments are not getting the number of applicants they were hoping for,” she says. “We have staffing shortages in the juvenile home, the courts, and the Sheriff’s department.
“This puts added stress on employees here and it’s impacting operations because we have to have the appropriate staffing levels to operate the jail and the juvenile home effectively. With COVID spiking, that’s just making it worse. We have to figure out how to recruit and retain people who are seeking a different way of working and are asking for things like flexible schedules.”
Although it hasn’t happened yet, Scott says there is a very real possibility that frontline managers could be asked to fill gaps left by a lack of employees and workers in other departments may be asked to fill in as well.
“There is still a big faction of our community that’s very much convinced that they should not be worried about COVID and they should go on with their lives,” Scott says.
“The Health Department continues to direct resources and staffing to continue to work on contact tracing, vaccinations and clinics and to some extent that impacts their ability to get back to their other jobs. To the extent that COVID is part of our staffing shortage that just makes it more difficult for us to be as responsive as we can. Some of our first responders are getting a little bit desperate to find people. We’re constantly revisiting recruiting ideas and apprenticeships.”
These efforts are competing with a shift in the mentality of many workers who are seeking less stressful work environments or opting to retire earlier and are not interested in picking up part-time jobs the way they used to. Economists are referring to this as the Great Resignation
and it has been receiving a lot of attention.
Scott says county employees are continuing to address home and life balance and COVID’s impact on their mental health just as it is for workers everywhere.
“We’re dependent on our employees being happy and healthy and it’s a constant challenge for us,” she says. “Every time we have an employee out with COVID we do contact tracing and work with that employee and their family to support them. I’m always concerned about making sure we have the right strategies in place to keep us stable in the long term and supporting our employees. Mental health issues impact our employees too. We are figuring out how best we can communicate with them and asking questions like, ‘Do we need to increase benefits in certain areas?’ We want to keep them healthy and encourage them to get vaccinated.”
Scott no longer has the expectation she had last year about an emergence from COVID and a return to a new sense of normal. This year’s word may be strength to withstand the virus and variants.
“We have shown how we have not just held down the fort over the last couple of years, but have also improved things for the public that we serve,” Scott says. “We have continued to focus on the needs of the public and the public will continue to see big needs addressed and strengthened partnerships with nonprofits because of the Joint Operations Center. The county’s network will be even stronger and better suited to meet whatever challenges we are faced with.”