by Emmitt B. Feldner
for The Beacon
SHEBOYGAN – The county’s state of emergency has been extended for another 60 days by the County Board, but not without pushback and debate.
The County Board passed a resolution extending the original declaration adopted March 17 by a vote of 20-5, with several supervisors questioning the need for an extension and expressing concerns about its possible impact.
“Why are we declaring a state of emergency when we are not in one?” Supervisor Brian Smith asked. “Why do we need to address this now if it is not an issue now?”
Under the original emergency declaration, County Administrator Adam Payne was granted additional powers for up to 60 days, including giving emergency management contracts priority over any other contracts, awarding necessary public works contracts to meet the emergency without having to put them out for bid, allocating materials and facilities, and making emergency interim appointments to fill vacant county offices, among others.
In his report to the board, Payne said the continuation of the declaration would also maintain the county’s eligibility for additional federal and state funds.
“We’re still in the midst of a health pandemic,” Payne stated. “It doesn’t stop at the county line. Let’s be prepared. Let’s be poised to respond as quickly as possible.”
He outlined the response the county took to the state Supreme Court’s ruling that Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order was unconstitutional.
His office issued a set of Sheboygan County Safe Restart recommendations two days after the court ruling. “It was not an order, not requirements — they’re guidelines, they’re recommendations.”
Supervisor Roger TeStroete proposed an amendment to the declaration extension resolution that he said answered questions raised by his constituents.
His amendment said the resolution:
“(I)s intended to support the reopening of businesses, non-profits and other facilities;
“(D)oes not reinstate (the) Safer at Home order or include any new order or restrictions on individuals, businesses or community activities;
“(S)upports the county administrator and county departments in responding to unanticipated surges in COVID-19, if needed;
“(And) is not intended to curtail any business, church or community activity.”
That led Smith to ask, “What classifies a surge in COVID cases? Who gets to determine” that? His questions were echoed by several other supervisors.
“What I would envision is if our hospitals are overrun and are unable to provide the level of care they need to provide,” Payne stated. “My hope is that situation would never occur.”
“Two months ago we didn’t know what’s happening, what’s going on,” Supervisor Michael Ogea observed, outlining his reservations with parts of the resolution.
“I think everyone here agrees we should give guidance to the community. It’s the other stuff stuck in there that’s unclear. To me, that kind of overwhelms the good that’s in this resolution,” he continued.
Ogea, and several other supervisors, questioned provisions that allow the county and its public health department to take further steps under chapter 252, the state communicable diseases statues, “in the event of a surge in cases or other circumstances.”
“The language in 252 is very concerning,” Smith stated. “My constituents would feel much more comfortable if we waited for a surge to be prevalent.”
He cited figures given by Sheboygan resident James Goldbeck in a public address to the board where he urged defeat of the emergency declaration extension.
Goldbeck contended that, “at this time, there is no state of emergency as it relates to COVID-19 in Wisconsin. The crisis is over, at least for now.”
He pointed out that the total number of confirmed cases in the county represent just .06 percent of the total county population.
Smith and others said that the board could be convened on 24 hours notice to approve a declaration of emergency should a surge of cases occur.
“What this really does is allow the county, through the county administrator, to react quickly to changing circumstances,” Corporation Counsel Crystal Fieber said of the declaration extension. “This is allowing us to take action more quickly if it is seen as necessary. At this point in time, you probably have a flavor of the actions that are being taken.”
Among those, Payne reported, have been the purchase of personal protective equipment and the hiring of additional contract tracing personnel in the public health department. To this point, he added, $300,000 of the up to $500,000 authorized for the response in the original declaration has been spent.
“We need to display confidence, we need to be agile,” Supervisor Rebecca Clarke said in support of extending the emergency declaration. “Right now, we’re in between two hot spots,” for COVID-19, Milwaukee County and Brown County.
Several supervisors defended the actions taken thus far under the original declaration.
“I think we have a 60-day track record of outstanding performance thus far,” Supervisor Thomas Wegner commented.
A number of supervisors agreed with Supervisor Henry Nelson, who observed that he had received more phone calls and emails from constituents over the resolution than on any issue since the sale of the Sunny Ridge nursing home.
“Frankly, people are sick of being imposed upon,” Supervisor Brian Hilbelink related. “The problem is the fear is out of the bag already. The fear is out that you could be doing something to close businesses again.”
“I’ve heard from constituents who are very much concerned about the decision lifting the Safer at Home order,” Supervisor Vicky Schneider reported. “They are profoundly concerned about a lack of concern for the elderly. You can work for your business back but you can’t get your life back.”
Nelson, among others, decried the use of the words “emergency declaration” in the resolution. “Unfortunately, words have power,” he commented.
Payne conceded that the term could be seen as extreme, but added that the language was from state and county statutes.
A proposal from Supervisor Gerald Jorgensen to strike language referencing a declaration of emergency from the resolution was ruled out of order by Board Chair Vernon Koch because, he said, it would too greatly alter the meaning of the resolution.
In the end, the resolution was adopted by a vote of 20-5, with Supervisor Jacob Immel joining Smith, Jorgensen, Ogea and Hilbelink in voting no.