The La Crosse County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Thursday evening to declare a state of emergency for the county.
The resolution, similar to that taken from the state and federal levels, would free dollars up to use in the wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and reiterate the authority of county and emergency service leaders.
“It just says, since this is an emergency, certain decisions need to be made,” said Tara Johnson, chair of the La Crosse County Board of Supervisors.
Specifically, this resolution would free the county administrator from spending more than $20,000 without board approval.
That spending would cover things like increased staffing in health, law enforcement and IT departments, and increased medical equipment at the county level.
It would not, however, pay for more COVID-19 test kits. Funding for that comes from the state or federal governments, or the hospitals themselves.
The extra funding would come from various reserves, which hold about 40% of the county’s total operating budget. And it would likely be reimbursed by state and federal funds later on. Exact emergency spending would be calculated by a coding system set in place.
“La Crosse County is probably one of the most fiscally healthy counties in the state,” Johnson said. “We are very health financially, and I don’t think any of us anticipate at this point that we will have any kind of concern being able to cover these expenses.”
The state of emergency would also help all county committees and boards make adaptations to meetings, and lift them of the requirement to meet in person.
But to vote on the emergency declaration, the 30-some board members did have to meet in-person like usual, and members of the public and the media were also allowed in, abandoning the state and national requirement of no more than 10 people at a single gathering.
“We are doing a little bit of flying the plane while taking on passengers,” Johnson said of the unique situation.
County staff situated seating in the boardroom to embrace the social distancing space of six feet. But it will likely be the last in-person meeting for some time, thanks to the state of emergency.
“Every time we’ve talked about it, we think it’s important that we meet in person,” Johnson said, saying things like public engagement and closed sessions become complicated with livestreamed, remote meetings.
“However, this is an emergency, so we will be modifying,” she added. “Our intent is to continue to be in compliance with open meetings law. Yes, we have to make it accessible to the public. ... We have those mechanisms, we just have intentionally not used those mechanisms.”
The county most recently declared a state of emergency in 2018 for flooding, which only lasted 30 days. This time, though, the county will extend the state of emergency for 120 days.
“These are normally 30 days, maybe 60,” Johnson said, “but because of the nature of this pandemic, there’s just the uncertainty of how long this will last.”
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