County braces for jump in COVID-19 cases, big deficit expected for 2020-2021 budget

A county staff member addresses the members of the Board of Supervisors during their now, virtual weekly meeting, on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Video screenshot.

Three deaths in county from 212 cases, so far

By Daniel Borsuk

Since the last time the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors met two weeks ago, the number of Contra Costa residents with COVID-19 symptoms have tripled, Contra Costa County Health Services Director Anna Roth told Supervisors during a live-streamed meeting Tuesday.

Roth told supervisors the county had 212 cases of patients with COVID-19 symptoms and there had been three deaths. Two weeks ago, there 70 patients had COVID-19 symptoms and one patient had died from the virus.

In the meantime, county medical professionals are barely treading water in providing life-saving ventilators for COVID-19 stricken patients. County Health Officer Dr. Christopher Farnitano said hospitals have 76 ventilators in use and 100 more ventilators are on order, but over time additional equipment will be need.

“We are not going to save most of our patients who will need to be on ventilators. We will have 1,000 patients or more who will need to be on ventilators. Most will die. We need to reduce the number of people coming down with COVID-19 symptoms,” said Dr. Farnitano.

Dr. Farnitano said an alternate health care site is scheduled to open at the Antioch Fair Grounds next week to help accommodate additional COVID-19 patients.

County Administrator David Twa, who will retire at the end of the year, said rising health costs stemming from COVID-19 will force the county to plug up funding holes totaling $43 million a year for the next three years. The rising medical costs stem from recently signed labor agreements for hospital professionals and in-home care attendant workers.

Twa projected an 11 percent decline in property values will trigger a $27 million decrease in property tax revenue at least for the upcoming 2020/2021 fiscal year.

That projection from Twa caused District 4 Supervisor Karen Mitchoff of Pleasant Hill to warn her colleagues, “We may need to reduce the work force. We could be facing difficult times.”

Supervisors will get a better picture of the proposed 2020-2021 budget on April 21 when it is presented publicly. The budget will be formally adopted on May 12.

County Treasurer-Tax Collector Russell Watts said his office anticipates an increase in the number of property owners to file online penalty cancellation requests on April 10 because of COVID-19. Watts told supervisors he would inform property owners if any of the hundreds of financial institutions holding $450 million in impound escrow funds miss depositing funds in the county treasury the financial institutions will be held accountable. He also will report to the board of supervisors if any financial institutions fail to submit impound funds to the county.

“This revenue is essential for keeping the county, our cities and schools, and other local government agencies running and providing vital services that the public relies on, especially in times like these,” said Watts in a press release.

Under the current stay-at-home orders, the county’s more than 177,000 K-12 public school students are coping under while the stringent shelter-in-place mandate stays in place, Contra Costa County Office of Education Superintendent Lynn Mackey told supervisors.

Students are learning via distance learning although students in some school districts fall through the technology gaps more than others, said Mackey. Noting that 42 percent of the county’s students qualify for the free lunch program, the county superintendent said, “We are making sure that students don’t fall through the cracks in providing the computers and resources for distance learning.”

District 1 Supervisor John Gioia of Richmond succeeded in getting Supervisors’ support to have Deputy County Counsel Mary Ann Mason prepare a comprehensive report on the feasibility of the Board adopting a moratorium on evictions, a ban that Alameda, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties have already adopted.

The proposed imposition of an eviction moratorium was one of major topics supervisors heard from 120 emailed letters from residents. Other issues citizens wrote about connected to the COVID-19 pandemic were: Imposition of a moratorium on rent, Depopulating the county jails, and Protecting county social workers.

Temporary Emergency Worker Classification Created

Citing the possibility, the County might need temporary emergency workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, Supervisors unanimously approved County Administrator David Twa’s request to establish the classification with a salary range of $12 an hour to $35 an hour.

Supervisors approved County Administrator Twa’s request on a   5-0 vote even though Twa said he did not have the time to consult with labor representatives about the creation of the classification.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the county will need to hire additional workers to be able to continue providing current essential services to county residents, as well as services to provide information, protect health and save lives,” Twa’s request stated. “The County Administrator is recommending establishing the hourly classification of Temporary Emergency Worker.”

In other business, Supervisors appointed Walnut Creek-based commercial and residential developer Ross Hillesheim to fill the At-Large 2 seat on the Contra Costa County Planning Commission. Other applicants for the position, a four-year appointment, recommended by the Internal Operations Committee were former City of Concord planning commissioner LaMar Anderson, journalist Daniel Borsuk of Pittsburg, and North Richmond Residential Leadership team member Johana Gurdian.

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BOS 03-31-20

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