By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — While Gov. Chris Sununu announced the reopening of some of the state’s economy Friday, a legislative advisory board continued to hear from state agencies, first responders and childcare officials how the COVID-19 epidemic has impacted their operations.
The Legislative Advisory Committee of the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery is expected to begin developing its recommendation to the governor next week.
On Friday, the area agencies that provide services to the disabled and acquired brain disorders said they have had to suspend many of their day services, which reduces revenues by about $600,000 a week mainly from Medicaid reimbursement.
“We’ve had expenditures we were not prepared to spend,” said Sarah Aiken, Public Affairs Director for Community Bridges in Concord, one of 10 area agencies around the state. “We have some pretty significant losses to our organization.”
She said her agency has had to make significant investment in information technology including laptops and software to provide remote connections for workers and patients.
Aiken said agencies have had to furlough workers, reduce hours and some employees are on leave. Although there are fewer workers, the level of service remains the same, with some areas increasing like transportation or respite for families, food and shelter, she said.
“One in five people in New Hampshire has disabilities,” Aiken said. “The area agencies are doing all they can to mitigate risk to the community as a whole.”
Jonathan Routhier, Executive Director of Community Support Network Inc., said nine of the 10 area agencies have received forgivable loans under the payroll protection plan, but the agency serving Coos, Grafton and Carroll counties, Northern Human Services, has too many employees to be eligible.
He asked the advisory committee to consider $4.6 million for the agency, which is what it would be eligible to receive under the federal formula. He also asked for $1.3 million for spending the agencies had to do to address the new COVID environment and $15.5 million to replace in agencies’ lost day service revenues.
The COVID-19 epidemic has weakened the state’s safety net potentially leading to the loss of some of the agencies partners who provide health and other services, he said.
“I hope you will help to stabilize the safety net,” Routhier told the advisory committee, and suggested when the legislature reconvenes it approve an earlier start to a Medicaid reimbursement rate increase scheduled for Jan. 1.
The committee heard from state officials and private providers about the need to rebuild the childcare and early learning systems that lost about 90 percent of their children since February.
All said the state needs to have a robust, improved and more financially stable system or the state’s economy will not be able to return to health.
Department of Health and Human Services Associate Commissioner of Human Services and Behavioral Health, Chris Tappan said there is a connection between childcare and the state’s economy.
“The New Hampshire economy cannot reopen or operate to capacity without access to affordable childcare,” she said.
“Many workers will have to make the difficult decision between work or going to unemployment benefits because of childcare.”
Early Learning NH executive director Jackie Cowell said the centers have been hit with a double punch of less revenue, less kids and new expenses for what is expected to be new guidelines and reduced capacity due to the virus.
“Grants need to go out right away so (the centers) can stay open and recover some of their losses,” Cowell said. She suggested a $48 million fund would be needed to allow the childcare and early learning centers to remain open and rebuild through the end of the year.
Police and Fire
The legislative committee also heard from the presidents of the professional firefighters and police unions who said their members were not trained for the unexpected risk of the coronavirus.
Yet they said their members have not missed a call and responded to every situation, with police seeing an increase in the most dangerous situations like domestic assaults.
Both organizations asked the committee to consider mental health services for first responders, money for cities and towns that face declining revenues leading to reduced services, and equipment for more remote work both for training and for court hearings.
And they asked legislators to consider a bonus system for first responders like the one Gov. Sununu announced for Medicaid direct service and child-care workers.
Department of Agriculture Commissioner Shawn Jasper said the COVID-19 epidemic has put two-thirds of the state’s remaining 90 dairy farms at risk.
Falling milk prices due to the drop off in schools and restaurant purchases of milk has created a disaster for dairy farmers across the country, he told the legislative committee.
Many of the cash-strapped farmers did not purchase insurance, he said, and now face an uncertain future.
“Without relief money, many dairy farmers will go out of business,” Jasper said, and asked the committee to recommend about $5 million in federal funds for help.
He also said agri-tourism has become a growing sector of the farming industry and has also been impacted by the coronavirus.
Robert Johnson, policy director of the NH Farm Bureau, said many farms now host weddings and receptions and have had those events cancelled with some rescheduling for September, but that is uncertain.
And he said, farms that operate retail stands have had to purchase new equipment and change their facilities to adjust to new safety requirements like social distancing.
He said about $500,000 would be needed to help with the changes and cancellation of events.
Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut asked the committee to consider spending $40 million to $60 million on internet connectivity in order to reach the students who do not have access.
“We want to continue to invest for all households and students across the state,” he said.
The committee meets Monday at 1 p.m. to begin deciding on its priorities for spending $1.25 billion CARES Act money.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org