Clock Ticking on Spending $1.25B Federal COVID Funds

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Paula Tracy file photo

Members of the Executive Council and Gov. Chris Sununu take a break after meeting at the Seacoast Science Center in Rye last October. From left are councilors Russell Prescott, Gov. Sununu, Debora Pignatelli and from left standing are Councilors Mike Cryans, Andru Volinsky and Ted Gatsas.

By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org

CONCORD
– Gov. Chris Sununu said he spoke directly with President Donald Trump about CARES Act funding and flexibility to use those funds in 2021, particularly as they relate to extending and improving broadband service across the state.

During its regular Executive Council meeting Friday, Councilor Michael Cryans, D-Hanover, asked Sununu about the limitations of using that money for more projects next year. Sununu said CARES Act money has to be spent by Dec. 31, 2020 “so we are asking for an extension to use those dollars after that date.”

The Executive Council met for the first time in person since the pandemic for a regular council meeting. Rather than gathering on a Wednesday at the council chamber’s in the State House with all the state’s commissioners, the council met at the National Guard on Friday.

The state received $1.25 billion in pandemic relief assistance and has created more than 20 funds to help various sectors of the economy. The state has between $200 and $250 million left unallocated from the CARES Act and there are some funds that have not yet been tapped out.

But the clock is ticking toward the end of the year. Use it or lose it is the current deal.

Sununu said Congress was looking to provide that flexibility but said he is not sure if Congress will get around to it.

“I spoke to the president,” Sununu said. “I made the pitch, that flexibility with the CARES Act is paramount,” and he said he spoke with Vice President Mike Pence earlier this week and emphasized that issue as well.

Previously, at a press conference before the president’s rally in Londonderry, Sununu said he would be asking the president directly to provide more flexibility on CARES Act allocations. Fortunately, he said, he is among most other governors in the country also advocating for more CARES Act flexibility.

“We will keep pushing. I think Congress is meeting for the next few weeks to get a variety of things done,” and Sununu said he is hopeful.

The broadband expansion and improvement projects are the ones most impacted under the CARES Act spending time limitations. Sununu said 16 or 17 projects are moving forward in rural areas of the state but there could have been more if there was more time to do it. The projects must be completed by the first of the year.

Executive Councilor Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua, asked why it was so expensive, noting about $17 million is being spent on broadband expansion.

Sununu said it averages out to be about $3,000 per home which is less than the average of $4,500.

Confirmations

Among those confirmed during the meeting was Roger Phillips of Concord to the state’s Adult Parole Board,  Melissa Underhill of Franklin to the Board of Nursing, Keith Quicken of Hanover to the NH Municipal Bond Bank, and Janet Kidder of New London to the Lakes Management Advisory Board.

Executive Councilor Ted Gatsas, R-Manchester, said he was contacted by the city of Manchester about the syringe funding program, which was passed at the last meeting.

“Why do they make it seem like nobody’s talking to them?” Gatsas asked. “The emails I have gotten in the last two to three days seem to indicate that.”

Lori Shibinette, commissioner of Health and Human Services, said she would give him a timeline of her department’s communication with the city on the progress of the contract and discussed issues related to the contractor being new to the state.

Sununu said the state is constantly working with the city of Manchester, and on any issues they have “we are addressing.” Shibinette also gave an update on construction at the Philbrook Building in Concord where the state hopes to house patients with mental illness.

The plan was to have it done by September and the work continues.

The council approved a $1.1 million contract with Northeast Family Services of NH Inc., Manchester, NH, “to provide Roadmap to Reunification services that continuously assess family needs, ensure safety and well-being for children and youth, and provide the necessary support for families and caregivers with the goal of achieving permanency.”

Cause of Death

Shibinette also discussed the state’s “robust testing” for COVID-19 in its long-term care facilities where the virus has seen its most serious impacts. More than 80 percent of the COVID-19 deaths have been in long-term care.

Gatsas asked if she could break down deaths from being the cause of death to being a contributing factor to the cause of death. She said she could not do that.

Shibinette said physicians  determine that and without COVID-19 many would live a longer or better life.

Gatsas said using COVID-19 as the cause is “a pretty loose term.”
“Honestly, I don’t think we are qualified to do that,” Shibinette said.

Sununu sided with Shibinette and said in just about all of the cases the deaths occurred in individuals with underlying health conditions which made them more vulnerable to the highly transmissible virus which has killed millions worldwide.
Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, said he has problems with politicians getting involved in characterizations of deaths caused by COVID-19 or whether it was a contributing factor.

“I think there is a national effort to change reporting for political reasons,” Volinsky said.

Pignatelli agreed with Volinsky and said she believes it is dangerous for politicization of the causes for COVID-19 deaths.

Traffic Counts

Victoria Sheehan, commissioner of the Department of Transportation, said since the pandemic, traffic is down about 10 percent on rural roads and the turnpike system is down about 17 percent.

Executive Councilor Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, asked how the state or department handles contracts awarded in-state versus an out-of-state lower bidder?

Unfortunately, Sheehan said, it is a simple low-bid situation.

Volinsky noted there would be a commerce clause issue if one favored in-state versus an out-of-state bidder.

Pulpit Rock in Rye

The council approved a lease with the Friends of Pulpit Rock Tower Inc. for 0.438 acres of property that includes Pulpit Rock Tower, a World War II observation tower, to continue future maintenance and stewardship, rehabilitation, and the eventual transfer of the property to Rye by extending the agreement until Nov. 6, 2023 at no cost to the state.


Raises in a Pandemic

Volinsky raised concern about raises for commissioners in a pandemic when people are without work, are food insecure and a tough budget year looms. He said he did not want to pick on Sarah L. Stewart, commissioner of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, whose salary would increase from $102,949 to $109,305 retroactive to June 2.

Volinsky voted against the raise but it passed 4-1. Volinsky also did not support a salary increment for the Deputy Commissioner, Christine Brennan, from Grade II, Step 6 $118,707 to Grade II, step 7 $124,579 effective Oct. 20. The measure passed.


Sole-Source Contracts

Pignatelli voiced concern about two sole-source contracts for the Department of Education: one with RWS Technology LLC, Gilford, to execute the expansion, development, and implementation of a web-based financial reporting system, and augmentation of the Grants Management System, in an amount not to exceed $119,000.

The other was with a Division of Learner Support to enter into a sole-source contract with WestEd, San Francisco, to design/provide tools and implement diagnostic reviews of all 20 Comprehensive Support and Improvement schools to improve student performance, in the amount of $266,603. Both used primarily federal funds.

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut noted issues related to the pandemic and concern to interrupt existing work by putting these out to bid.
Sununu said this is a common issue throughout the country as people work remotely.
“This is why we have had a few more sole-source contracts,” Sununu said.
Pignatelli said she would not support those contracts.

Domestic Violence

The council approved an amendment to an existing subgrant with the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence to provide services for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence throughout the state by increasing the price limitation by $62,500 from $7,808,944 to $7,871,444. 

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