County commission discusses Etowah community concerns

July 10, 2020 chris
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By Emma Kirkemier, Staff Correspondent

At its July 7 session, the commission addressed the concerns of civil rights groups and possible new training for law enforcement, as well as the purchase of four new buses for Etowah County Rural Transportation.

District 5 Commissioner Jeffery Washington described recent meetings with community civil rights groups. Washington and Shane Ellison, commission Chief Administrative Officer, recently met with representatives from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In addition, commissioners and community groups discussed implementing sensitivity training for Etowah County police officers. Washington said he and Ellison “looked into” the role that the county commissioners could play “to take some of the fear away on both sides.” He explained that they believed sensitivity training might help to ease some of that fear.

“I think that a lot of problems that we have, they stem from fear: fear from the person being pulled over and fear for the officer who’s approaching the car,” Washington said. “I think both sides have their better reasons for being fearful because of things we’re seeing, [things that] the news has displayed to us. I think the sensitivity training would be a great thing if we got all Etowah County [to participate].”

Washington encouraged cooperation between cities and the county so that all police officers in Etowah County, not just sheriff’s office deputies, would receive training. He emphasized the importance of working together as a county to bring unity and peace.

“Truly a house divided against itself cannot stand, and Etowah County, to me, is divided,” Washington said. “[With] so many municipalities and county commissioners, we have got to begin to work together greater to make Etowah County great.”

In other business, Etowah County Rural Transportation Director Lora Weaver asked the commission to approve her application to Federal Transit Administration grants and to draw down CARES Act funds.

ECRT applied for the Rural Transit Assistance Program 5311 grant to cover capital equipment costs, planning to purchase four new buses in total. Weaver said the federal funding match for just two new buses and new communication software for drivers will be $230,880 with a local match of $57,000, dividing the purchase price into 80 percent federal money and 20 percent locally.

Weaver said CARES Act funding will provide for 2021 operating expenses including “drivers’ salaries, the fringe (benefits), the upkeep of the vehicles, preventative maintenance, any repairs, the fuel.”

The CARES Act will also match 5311 grant funding on equipment purchases, meaning ECRT will be purchasing two buses under the 5311 grant and receiving two more entirely from CARES Act funding. It will provide Etowah County with four new buses for the price of two.

“Under the CARES Act, if we purchase a vehicle under the 5311 grant, they will provide one for free,” Weaver said. “… So we’re basically buying two buses next year (and) getting two free, which is a great thing.”

Weaver also detailed the safety measures the rural transportation department is taking to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including separating drivers with a barrier, encouraging passengers to wear masks, having drivers spot clean in between passengers and having requiring buses to be misted with a sanitizing agent once a day.

For more information on ECRT safety measures, visit https://gadsdenmessenger.com/2020/06/19/etowah-county-rural-transportation-offering-full-operations/.

During its June 30 work session last week, the Etowah County Commission discussed funding for coronavirus relief and for the sheriff’s office.

Etowah County Sheriff Jonathon W. Horton asked the commission about hazard pay for his deputies. He said that the City of Gadsden has given its city police officers $1,000 in hazard pay and that he wanted a similar stipend for county sheriff’s deputies.

Horton described the coronavirus-related expenditures the sheriff’s office has faced, “from cleaning the county storm shelters and disinfecting them to … adjusting our schedule and policies and procedures [at the detention center] to maintain the infection rate, to keep it down and outside of the detention center.”

Horton asked the commission to look to funding from the CARES Act to fulfill his request, since that funding could reimburse the county for a coronavirus-related stipend.

“It’s just a one-time stipend that we’re asking for in appreciation of first responders, very similar to all of our counterparts and municipalities within the county,” Horton said.

Commission Chief Administrative Officer Shane Ellison said that he would like to financially assist county employees across multiple departments, including not only law enforcement, but also revenue commissioner, probate judge and probate office employees.

“We are, to that end, working up a budget for the monies that we did receive, so you all will be in on that as we proceed,” Ellison said. “But it mostly just depends on what’s eligible [for reimbursement under the CARES Act] and what’s not.”

Ellison noted that the commission was currently in contact with the state about coronavirus relief funding.

“We’ll keep pushing and see what we can make out of it,” he said.

District 4 Commissioner Tim Ramsey said that the sheriff and the commissioners have met with several community groups recently, with very positive results.

“A lot of communication has gone back and forth, and I think there’s a better understanding of what the situation actually is,” Ramsey said. “I just want to thank everybody for coming forward and having that conversation. The beginning of what needs to happen is just the conversation, to be able to know where we are and what we are doing. I was speaking with the sheriff yesterday about some of the things that possibly will come out of this, and a lot of it is positive, so I’m happy to hear that.”

Etowah County sheriff’s deputies recently received county funding for the cleaning and maintenance of their uniforms to mitigate their exposure to COVID-19. District 2 Commissioner Johnny Grant clarified the purpose of this funding and expressed his support for all county employees, including law enforcement.

“It’s not that the county buys them uniforms, but it’s for the maintenance of the uniforms,” Grant said. “I just want to say that I’m in full support of all the county employees. … I still want us to look closely at the sheriff’s office and law enforcement [for financial assistance].”

District 1 Commissioner Joey Statum reminded the commissioners and his community of the importance of the 2020 census, which he said had been on the “back burner” recently. He urged his audience not to forget about the census in the midst of “everything happening.”

Statum added that while the coronavirus could distract from the importance of taking the census, the census is actually a vital tool in gaining coronavirus relief funding.

“It’s really, really, really important for everyone to be counted and do what they’re supposed to do,” Statum said. “… [The census determines] federal funding for everything. It’s very, very important, and I just want to mention that.”