County offices adjust amid pandemic

By Jennifer Woods -

With all county offices remaining in-service of the public, the Record-Herald reached out to different departments to see how they are operating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The following information was collected by email from Fayette County Prosecuting Attorney Jess Weade and Fayette County Engineer Steve Luebbe.

As previously reported, the Fayette County Commissioners recently declared the county to be in a state of fiscal emergency. County offices were asked to assist with cutting the county’s general fund budget by 20 percent in order to stay ahead of revenue falling during the current pandemic, such as cutting employee hours and a suggestion for elected officials to return 20 percent of their pay in some way to the county.

The Fayette County Prosecutor’s Office has taken several steps to attempt to reduce its budget, according to Weade.

Firstly, out of the office’s Furtherance of Justice fund, which is used for office operating expenses and was worth approximately $35,000 this year, $10,000 was given back to the county’s general fund and there may be $5-10,000 more that can be given back at the end of the year.

According to Weade, an expense that usually takes a large chunk out of their Furtherance of Justice Fund is continuing legal education for their attorneys. This is due to attorneys needing 24 hours of continuing education every two years in order to maintain their law license and stay in good standing with the Ohio Supreme Court.

Currently, this is not an expense that is concerning.

“As the concerns over money and county budgets are not unique to Fayette County, the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association (OPAA), of which our office is a member, has decided to offer to member counties free continuing legal education for member counties,” wrote Weade. “As a result of that, all attorneys in the office have been encouraged to take advantage of the continuing legal education requirements through OPAA.”

Weade further explained that, in the local office, it is the responsibility of the individual attorneys to keep track of the continuing education hours they have and still need. For this year, if an attorney does not have enough hours through the OPAA and needs additional hours, they will have to pay for it on their own.

The office has also reduced all travel expenses, other than mandated court hearings at the Ohio Supreme Court or the 12th District Court of Appeals in Middletown, has placed hardware purchases on hold, and has reduced employee hours.

The prosecutor’s office is working with other county offices, such as the courts and the sheriff, to try to coordinate and reduce funds to help with other budgets that are indirectly impacted.

“As an elected official, my salary is set by statute and thus the county has to pay me what the statute says,” explained Weade. “In an effort to take part in the cuts, I have purchased out of my personal funds masks, cleaning materials, wipes, and I will be paying for the office supplies when those bills come in again out of personal funds. I plan to evaluate this at the end of each quarter, and if my contribution of materials, supplies and anything else is less than the 20 percent requested by the commissioners, then I will submit those funds to the county directly.”

Although the prosecutor’s office was back to full staffing as of Monday, the staff members are on reduced hours and they are following social distancing. Work stations are more than six feet apart and masks are available for witnesses to use. The office remains closed to all but office staff. Meetings with victims, witnesses, defense counsel, and clients are being held elsewhere or virtually.

The Fayette County Engineer’s Office has remained in operation with some minor changes throughout the pandemic as most of the office’s funding comes from the fuel tax, according to Luebbe.

“(Fuel tax) funds have about a 3 month lag time from when you fill up at the pump, so we don’t expect to see the effects for another month or so,” wrote Luebbe. “We are anticipating a decrease in revenue of about 20 percent for this year. We feel like we’ve done a good job managing our budget over the years, and that we can absorb that sized shortfall without a major interruption to our operation.”

The current plan is to remain fully-staffed and open to the public although the field crews have had some modifications in their hours of operation and to some of the daily protocols.

“They are all working the same, just with staggered start times,” explained Luebbe. “With less people around all at one time, it more easily allows us to keep our distances. Once everyone gets to the job site, it’s not as much of an issue. Through this pandemic, we’ve tried to find the right balance between observing the governor’s order and providing the service people expect.”

Luebbe further explained that there is one paving/bridge project that may be impacted due to a possible delay in receiving some grant money. Aside from this one project, all others are on schedule.

“Luckily, several of those projects are funded with outside revenue sources, namely federal grants that are unaffected,” wrote Luebbe.

Reach Jennifer Woods at 740-313-0355 or on Twitter @JennMWoods.

By Jennifer Woods