County faced multiple changes to its budgets and staff in response to COVID-19 in 2020

By Jerrie Whiteley
Herald Democrat
Grayson County elected officials and employees rode a wave of changes to help each other and county residents cope with COVID-19 in 2020.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in the U.S. in late winter and early spring of 2020, officials in Grayson County began holding meetings about just how the county would handle the situation when it reached North Texas.

No one could have anticipated, completely, the effort it would take or the toll that effort would take on county employees, and finances.

Grayson County Judge Bill Magers has been very complimentary of the way the staff reacted when faced with having to completely redo the way they were used to getting things done. 

"In May 2020," Magers recalled in a recent email, "the Grayson County Commissioners Court made a $1.2 million proactive budget cut in anticipation of revenue shortfalls and unforeseen expenditures related to COVID-19. These cuts were made during a budget cycle (2019-2020) where the tax rate had been reduced by 6% from .442 to .416 per $100 of tax evaluation. The $1.2 million in budget cuts were reduced by defunding vacant positions, deferring non-essential capital expenditures, and reducing overhead. No county employees lost their job.

"These budget cuts were carried over into the 2020-2021 budget and the tax rate was further reduced an additional 10% to .376 from .416 per $100 tax evaluation. The total budget decreased from $45.6 to $44.7 million.

Grayson County Office of Emergency Management Director Sarah Somers said the COVID-19 response has been the office's longest running response to a disaster to date.

"The longest event time we ever worked was 52 continuous days (2015 spring storms, tornadoes and floods, a presidentially declared disaster," Somers said by text in late December.

At the point of that text, her office had worked 277 days and counting on the COVID-19 relief efforts. Wile the COVID-19 situation overshadows the number of days the crew has had to spend working on any previous disaster, that pales when compared with the way the death toll of this particular disaster stacks up against previous ones.

As of Wednesday morning, Grayson County had lost 169 people to COVID-19 related deaths.

"Since I was appointed in 2008, we have only lost one person during a disaster event we worked," she said of a life lost in a 2015 flood.

"This has been a totally different situation. Every death is heartbreaking. But then we have to keep going. Another day," she said.

In most disasters faced by the office, only a small portion of the county is impacted the event. That is not the case with COVID-19.

"Everyone is impacted," Somers said of the community's involvement in the disaster. That makes everything much harder. 

"Everything we do to try to make things better seems to cause some unpleasant down-stream side effect. Everyone is having a hard time in some way or other. Everyone is tired," Somers said as the pandemic not only continued in December but roared to heights not previously seen here.

Over at the Grayson County Health Department, Director Amanda Ortez and her crew have also been on the frontlines of the pandemic. 

As the COVID-19 situation evolved, Grayson County pivoted local operations and shifted resources as needed. Initially, the Grayson County Health Department dedicated six full-time employees and one part-time employee to COVID-19 related duties for more than 269 hours per week. As state and federal resources became available, the county was able to leverage those funds and programs to help offset local expenses and duties. In June, the county started drawing down the approximately $3 million allocated to the county by the federal government to meet COVID-19 related expenses. The money was used to pay overtime to county staffer's whose jobs were directly impacted by the county's response, purchase needed personal protective equipment, and purchase Plexiglas that was installed to try to keep local courtrooms running safely. 

"We've adjusted our operations as necessary to meet social distancing, masking and other CDC recommendations to combat the virus," Ortez said in a recent text. 

"We've conducted drive-through swab/COVID-19 testing clinics outside in our parking lot through the various elements and networked with community stakeholders in real time. The Health Department staff adapted quickly to the changes in our immediate environment to meet the needs of community as they've continued to change over the course of this pandemic. We will continue to adapt and change as needed to respond and help protect those around us. As we move from one phase of the pandemic to the next, we will continue to keep moving forward until we get through it. The only way through this type of public health crisis is to be there for one another. We will all have to work together to get over this hurdle," she said.

Somers agreed.

"This community of ours cares. People are helping people. We do the very best we can and when someone trips or falls, we pick them up. Health care workers are doing unbelievably hard work, seemingly without end. But we watch out for each other. You know how you say to family and friends, 'I love, you, bye' before you hang up? We are saying it to people who are part of our professional world. And we mean it."