A split Dubuque County Board of Supervisors on Nov. 23 gave the director of the county health department the authority to spend up to $10,000 of allocated funds to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Supervisors Dave Baker and Ann McDonough voted in favor of the measure, which had been recommended by staff. Supervisor Jay Wickham voted against.
This differed from the two supervisors’ position at the beginning of the pandemic, which — until now — required that any expenditure from the pot of $850,000 supervisors had allocated for general pandemic relief return to them before spending. But Ed Raber, interim executive director for the Board of Supervisors, explained that giving county health director Patrice Lambert access to some would allow her to be more nimble in emergencies.
This followed the Dubuque County Board of Health, last week, authorizing Lambert to spend up to $50,000 without their further approval. But that spending was to come from two state and federal grants, rather than county dollars.
“After the board of health did that, there were two things the health director was able to quickly do with (County Budget Director) Stella (Runde)’s help and implement and get some masks around the county and be a partner in messaging,” Raber told supervisors on Nov. 23. “The health department was successful in getting those, quickly, if laboriously. Those grant dollars have a fair number of strings attached to them.”
So, Raber recommended the supervisors authorize Lambert some spending from the county pot, as it would be less likely to get tied up in other rules.
McDonough made the motion for Lambert’s $10,000 spending authority, although she had fought hardest to maintain supervisors’ spending control in March. Baker seconded.
Baker said that the process of spending requiring supervisors’ approval had become “clunky” as the pandemic has stretched on and recently worsened.
“Right now, our process seems to be that the board of health approves an expenditure, then at the next meeting they can get on our agenda, we vote,” he said. “I believe that if we allocate the funds, that we have put our faith and trust in the Board of Health to make those expenditures. This is making that more nimble, up to $10,000. It’s an improvement.”
But, Baker added that he now thinks Lambert’s authorization could well go farther, more in line with other departments, where funds are available once allocated by the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors.
That shift brought Baker nearer to Wickham’s point of view, from which Wickham voted against Monday night’s motion, not because he thought Lambert should not have access, but that it should not be limited to $10,000.
“I’m on the conservation board and those expenditures don’t come before the Board of Supervisors,” Wickham said. “How did we get here, where we’re second and third guessing the department of health.”
McDonough, though, still felt it was very important to maintain oversight.
“What’s happening at the Board of Health is more than $800,000 put in the hands of a board of nine volunteers,” she said. “Those expenditures need to come to us so they are set up to be reimbursed by the appropriate agency.”
Baker, for his part, said the $10,000 authority as proposed was as far as he would go now, as he will not be on the board past December. He lost a bid for re-election to Supervisor-elect Harley Pothoff, who attended the meeting virtually, but did not speak.
“It’s not that I don’t want to take action,” Baker said. “I just think it would be appropriate for the new supervisor to have input on this.”
Since receiving Board of Health approval last Wednesday, Lambert has approved $19,000 for mask purchases, to comply with Dubuque County’s face covering mandate, and about $2,000 taken from some Iowa Department of Public Health grants to participate in some cooperative advertising with the state.