The Tulsa County Election Board is pictured in 2015. It was approved for federal COVID-19 improvements by Tulsa County on Monday. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World file

Matt Barnard

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Tulsa County began distributing federal funds for COVID-19-related expenses Monday with the approval of five applications totaling approximately $2 million.

The bulk of the CARES Act funding went to the Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency, which received $600,817 to purchase 250,000 KN95 masks and $1 million for Emergency Operations Center software. The software will allow area officials to hold secure virtual meetings.

The other major recipient of funding was the Tulsa County Election Board. County commissioners approved funding for new construction at the Election Board, 555 N. Denver Ave., to ensure proper social distancing and help with sanitation procedures.
Election Board Secretary Gwen Freeman said the authorization was for up to $300,000 but that she expects the actual cost of the work to be much less.

“The money we were granted this morning was to construct a physical glass barrier in the lobby of the Election Board to protect our workers (and) voters during early in-person voting when we will have thousands of people coming into the lobby to vote and otherwise conduct business,” Freeman said.

Tulsa County received nearly $114 million from the federal government to cover COVID-19-related expenses. County officials recently learned that the funds can be distributed not only to county entities but to municipalities, nonprofits and businesses within the county.

The $2.2 trillion CARES Act was approved by Congress in late March. The measure includes funding for a wide range of COVID-19 relief efforts, including individual payments to American households, funding for the Public Broadcasting System and loans for large businesses.

The federal relief program also provided for payments to municipalities and counties of at least 500,000 people. In Oklahoma, that includes Oklahoma County, Oklahoma City and Tulsa County.

Terry Simonson, director of government affairs for Tulsa County, told commissioners Monday that every applicant will be required to go through the same process. A committee of county officials will meet each Tuesday to review applications for funding, with approved projects forwarded to county commissioners for their approval the following Monday.

The review committee’s job is “to help you answer the most important question … and that is: Was this a necessary expenditure as a result of a COVID-19 public health emergency?” Simonson said.

The review committee members are County Commissioner Ron Peters, Deputy Commissioners Keri Fothergill and Mike Craddock, County Clerk Michael Willis, and Simonson.

Simonson reminded commissioners that municipalities cannot use CARES Act funding to offset lost revenues caused by the epidemic, and that the federal funds that are allocated must be spent by the end of the calendar year.

Federal guidelines do not specify how much of the county’s CARES Act funding can be allocated to the county, municipalities or other types of organizations.

“That is your call,” Simonson told commissioners. “There is no guidance; there is no right or wrong answer.”

Peters said after the meeting that it could be a couple of weeks until the county determines how much CARES Act funding will be made available for nonprofits and businesses.

There is talk in the U.S. Congress about either establishing a new COVID-19 relief package or modifying the existing one to allow for funds to be used by government entities to cover losses in revenue, Peters said.

The Tulsa County fairgrounds, for example, has lost significant revenue due to the cancellation of events, Peters noted.

“So what would happen is we’d probably be slow in putting out how much money is going for nonprofits and how much money is going for businesses for a couple of weeks, anyway, until the decision is made in D.C.,” Peters said.

Commissioner Karen Keith said she would like to focus on using the CARES funding to shore up small businesses.

She also would like to see “less of a burden on our nonprofits” on the back end, Keith said.

County officials are in discussions with Tulsa Area United Way and the Tulsa Economic Development Corp. about facilitating applications from nonprofits and businesses.

The other funding applications approved by county commissioners Monday included $1,435 for computer monitors with web cameras for the county’s Social Services Department and $96,602 for new escalator handrails in the courthouse. The handrails are designed to help prevent cross contamination.

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