County Board Discusses Mail-In Voting, Pandemic

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The ongoing pandemic and this year’s mail-in voting initiative dominated the discussion at this month’s meeting of the Montgomery County Board. All board members were either present or called into the meeting, held Tuesday evening, Aug. 11, at the Historic Courthouse in downtown Hillsboro.

Although Chairman Evan Young would call into the meeting, it was presided over by Vice Chairman Megan Beeler from the Historic Courthouse. 

In calling the meeting to order, she asked board member Donna Yeske to lead the Pledge of Allegiance in honor of the 100th anniversary of the ratifying of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Yeske said the county had been approached by Nancy Slepicka of Imagine Hillsboro to light the courthouse with purple and gold flood lights on Aug. 26 to mark the special occasion. 

Montgomery County Clerk Sandy Leitheiser said that of the 16,579 registered voters in Montgomery County, more than half of them are women.

“It’s so important to appreciate the right to vote,” Leitheiser said. “It’s a precious thing that so many have died for.”

Before moving into the regular meeting, Beeler also asked for a moment of silence for Dennis Jagodzinski, who formerly served as vice chairman of the county board, as well as mayor of Taylor Springs and a longtime member of the Taylor Springs Volunteer Fire Department.

Pandemic Update

Chris-Mont EMA Director Gregg Nimmo reported that Montgomery County was up 70 cases and five deaths since the previous meeting, marking a total of 177 positive cases and seven deaths since the start of the pandemic in March. He gave special recognition to Hillsboro Area Hospital, Carlinville Area Hospital and Pana Community Hospital for their local campaign to encourage residents to wear masks. 

Nimmo said that the county was currently working on getting reimbursement for COVID-related expenses, and later in the meeting, the county would approve a contract with Bellwether for $5,000 to help recoup those expenses. Nimmo also talked about two funding programs; the child care restoration act for licensed day care centers, those grants are due Aug. 14, and just announced, the emergency rental assistance program, which is dispersed through the Montgomery County Housing Authority, for those who need help paying rent.

Nimmo said they continue to work with local schools on plans to reopen their doors, as well as long-term care facilities. Currently, five of the 18 long-term care facilities in Christian and Montgomery counties have active COVID cases. Nimmo said his office was working to provide PPE (personal protective equipment) and that all those facilities were doing a fantastic job keeping numbers of positive cases low.

The Chris-Mont EMA continues to work to stockpile a 30-day supply of PPE for the county, and said right now they have a two and a half to three week supply. Nimmo said they currently have $160,000 worth of PPE on hand, which has been provided at no additional charge to the county from the federal government. So far, they have distributed more than $200,000 of PPE throughout the two-county region.

In continuing the discussion about the pandemic, Beeler introduced a motion to purchase 21 Chromebooks for county board members, along with Gmail addresses. The Chromebooks cost just over $5,000, while the email addresses will be an annual $1,500 expense. Bellwether assured the board these would be reimbursable COVID-related expenses. Beeler said it would also help with FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests if board members were not using personal email addresses. 

Bishop asked when these would be set up as there would be many new board members come Dec. 1, and Beeler said the email addresses will be fluid and will be passed on to new board members. She was unsure of the delivery date for the Chromebooks as they are in high demand right now. The motion passed with only two no votes. Voting against the motion were Bob Sneed and Ron Deabenderfer.

Board members would also unanimously pass an extension of the declaration of disaster in Montgomery County until the next board meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 8.

Mail-In Voting

Leitheiser said that applications for mail-in voting had been mailed to all registered voters in Montgomery County, adding they have already had a good response with a return of 1,350 cards in just one week.

“Based on that, we do expect a large vote-by-mail turnout in the November election,” she said.

Leitheiser added that with safety and security concerns amid the ongoing pandemic that vote-by-mail was a good choice for local voters.

She added that her office will be diligent in combating voter fraud, working closely with the state’s attorney. One way they are watching closely will be to make sure the signature on the ballot matches that of the signature on the voter registration card, which will be checked by election judges from both parties.

For those who have already returned their applications for a mail-in ballot, will be mailed a ballot on Sept. 24, which is the first day for early voting at the Historic Courthouse in downtown Hillsboro. Leitheiser said they have reconfigured the voting space in the basement to follow Center for Disease Control guidelines.

Leitheiser also paid special thanks to local election judges, who will be working hard to make sure local polls are open on election day.

She cautioned board members that the United States Post Office is worried about the large vote-by-mail turnout, which could delay results in close races. They encourage anyone who chooses to vote by mail to submit their application at least two weeks ahead of election day, although Leitheiser said the last day they can legally issue a vote-by-mail ballot is Oct. 29.

Her office is also looking into the possibility of a drop box for applications outside the Historic Courthouse. The newly installed drop box is not secure enough to meet Leitheiser’s requirements.

Once a voter submits a vote-by-mail ballot, he or she can call her office to make sure it’s been received. 

Board member Jeremy Jones asked about local residents who get multiple application cards from organizations outside the county clerk. Leitheiser said official mailings from her office would have the county seal on them, and voters should watch for those.

Consent Agenda

Board members would unanimously approve the monthly mileage and per diem requests, minutes from the previous meeting and the consent agenda. 

Beeler read a letter from Health Department Administrator Hugh Satterlee thanking the highway department and County Engineer Cody Greenwood for use of the former Wright Automotive parking lot for mobile COVID testing. Satterlee said more than 1,000 tests were done in seven days.

Treasurer Nikki Lohman reported that 68 percent of property taxes had been collected so far. The second installment will be due in September.

Liaison Reports

Board member Tim Fogle reported that CEFS is still in need of volunteers for the Meals on Wheels program.

Board member Ron Deabenderfer reported that the Senior Citizens met in July to discuss the annual budget, and likely won’t meet again until necessary due to the pandemic. Deabenderfer said their only budget issue is that the building is old and often in need of refurbishment.

In Planning Commission news, Deabenderfer said they discussed the totally revised wind ordinance and hope to present it to the economic development committee before the next full board meeting, adding he was pleased with the progress.

Coordinating

In addition to discussion about the pandemic, Beeler reported the upgrades to the 911 and sheriff’s department are going well. Two of the consoles are done with two more to go. Sheriff Rick Robbins said they are working out a few bugs, but that things are going very well.

In a census update, Leitheiser gave handouts to board members with the latest updates. She said training has begun for census workers, and she knows of at least one local person who has been hired. They will soon begin going door-to-door, wearing masks, using hand sanitizer and social distancing. They will make six attempts to contact the residents and then try to contact proxies, like neighbors. Census workers should also be properly identified.

Leitheiser added that initially they had set the completion date in next April due to pandemic delays, but it has now been moved up to December 2020. Several states have filed lawsuits, including Illinois, about the abbreviated time period to collect information.

Leitheiser encouraged board members to spread the word and make sure everyone got counted as local funding is dependent upon it.

Building and Grounds

Building and Grounds Committee Chairman Bob Sneed said they handled some routine maintenance items, adding that the elevators at the courthouse had been fixed. He said they will also be repairing some bad spots of brick work on the Historic Courthouse. The county will be using a local vendor who already has brick that matches.

Economic Development

Board members would unanimously approve the motion to move $100,000 from the Revolving Loan Fund to the coal fund to pay for the COVID-19 business relief grants. Board member Jeremy Jones asked if there had been any more interest than usual in the Revolving Loan Fund, and Yeske said they had one request, which is more than usual as of lately. Deabenderfer said the by-laws require the fund to have more than enough money to fund one loan ($50,000), and Beeler said they are able to do that even with the $100,000 transfer.

Yeske said the committee is also reviewing the by-laws of the Revolving Loan Fund.

She presented the finished CEDS document to board members for a 30-day review. Deabenderfer found several grammatical errors and encouraged board members to look closely at it.

Yeske said the bicentennial committee was meeting on Aug. 12, inviting civic organizations to be part of the event. She said that next year’s celebration is coming together and she’s excited, noting it will feature an antique car show and a rendezvous.

In a final note, Leitheiser said that Litchfield inquired as to why the Litchfield trails were not listed on the county website, and they have now been added.

EMA

EMA Chairman Bill Bergen said ambulance billing is increasing and more funding is coming in.

He said the 911 updates are going well.

Finance

Beeler noted some exciting news in the capital improvement fund report. Last month, the county received an $84,000 royalty payment from the coal company with another $74,000 payment this month.

She said Supervisor of Assessors Ray Durston is working on scheduling a meeting of the taxing bodies affected by the closure of the Vistra power plant in Coffeen.

Her committee also discussed employee vacation buyback, but was instead looking into hazard pay for employees working during the pandemic at the suggestion of Bellwether.

Beeler reminded the board that budget hearings would be held on Aug. 18 and Aug. 20, beginning at 8 a.m.

“The treasurer did a phenomenal job of preparing the budget packets,” Beeler said. “They are so organized. It was like Christmas.”

She invited all board members to attend and participate in the budget hearings.

Beeler said they are working on bidding out professional service for auditors and possibly health insurance.

She added that she had almost a dozen local businesses contact her that they were not aware of the county’s business relief grant program and wondered if another round of grants would be awarded. Beeler said about $90,000 remains, and they will discuss it again next month to possibly offer another round of aid. She noted that two fraternal organizations also reached out for assistance, and she’s working with the state’s attorney on the possible legal issues.

In a final note, Beeler said she looked into board member Mark Hughes’ comment at the August meeting about a raise for elected officials, including the coroner and circuit clerk. By statute, those raises have to be in place more than 180 days before the election, which is upcoming in November.

Beeler said that typically that is done in April or May, and with no county board meeting in April this year, it was an oversight.

“We are working diligently to make this right,” Beeler said. “But it was an honest mistake. I take full responsibility for it and we are trying to address it.”

During public comment, board member Glen Bishop said the circuit clerk and coroner have not had raises in four years and the county needs to take care of it.

“It’s ridiculous and a bad precedent to set,” he said.

Beeler said the last time the circuit clerk was up for a raise she asked that the money go toward her employees, which was done during budget negotiations. She added that neither of those elected officials asked for a raise, and said with the courthouse closed during the pandemic it just wasn’t on the radar.

Board member Jeremy Jones asked about a standard procedure in the future to make sure it didn’t happen again, and Beeler said they were working on it.

HWE

In addition to the discussion about mail-in voting, HWE Committee Chairman Chuck Graden said training continues for County Coordinator Chris Daniels, who has been named to the EPA Director position for the county.

Graden said that they are working on the wording for the bids for the final surplus equipment at the recycling center.

In Animal Control news, Graden said Warden Amanda Daniels was dispatched to the alleged murder scene in Witt to pick up two pitbulls and nine puppies.

Board member Earlene Robinson voiced a concern about communication with the animal control warden. She experienced it first-hand with a stray dog issue in Hillsboro. Graden said that would be a city issue and not a county one. Robinson said she had also heard from others who contacted animal control and that they did not receive a response back. Graden said they would discuss it.

Personnel

In employee health insurance news, Personnel Committee Chairman Kirby Furness said the company is showing a loss of nearly $23,000 this year in the county, which was looking at a 9.9 percent increase in health insurance costs this year. 

Furness added that the employee-option vision and life insurance plans would remain constant, but there could be a 7 percent increase in dental plans. None of those are funded by the county.

Furness said that the county has used 11.7 percent of its HRA this year, which is higher than last year. Jones asked if they could recoup any of that 9.9 percent increase in COVID-related expenses. Beeler said they could ask, but that it would be hard to provide due to employee privacy laws.

Furness also presented the board with an update to the employee personnel manual on cannabis usage. The board will review it for 30 days.

In a final note, Furness said he would participate in a webinar on employee leave during the pandemic and get more clarification on the rules.

Road and Bridge

In Road and Bridge Committee news, Chairman Gene Miles said that Gary Applegate from the Village of Walshville attended their committee meeting, but no agreement has been made on fixing the road. The county is going to try and help them if they can.

For now, the county will not transfer the deed for the former Wright Automotive property to the highway department, but they will continue to make payments. In the committee minutes, Engineer Cody Greenwood said they hope to be in the new facility later this year.

The committee also decided not to hire an additional maintainer at this time, and feel the current crew can keep up with the work. The position could be put back into the budget for next year.

After approval to pay the bills, the board adjourned their meeting, just shy of two hours. The full board will meet again on Tuesday evening, Sept. 8, beginning at 5:30 p.m. in downtown Hillsboro.

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