Butler County seeks hotel space for quarantined homeless, but finds hurdles

The Butler County commissioners have authorized an additional $175,000 to fight the coronavirus pandemic, this time specifically to address the homeless population.

When the commissioners issued a public health emergency order a month ago, it included setting up a $100,000 fund to handle pandemic expenses. Health Commissioner Jennifer Bailer told the commissioners on Monday that the county might need about $181,000 to secure hotel rooms for homeless residents she might have to quarantine for two weeks because they are infected.

She said she has studied many options for these people and identified a hotel that could house these people on a temporary basis, but the price has gone up since she first introduced the idea.

“It was originally 20 rooms for 28 days, and now they have requested that we reserve the entire hotel, they’re not comfortable with just a portion of it,” she said, adding a phone call to the hotel’s corporate office changed the game plan. “They were agreeing to close the rest of the hotel, but now they would like us to pay for the rest of the hotel. That’s a pretty significant change so we will continue to look at our options.”

The initial estimate from the Oxford Comfort Inn was $42,000, according to records obtained by the Journal-News. The lodging cost is now $73,000 for 65 rooms for 28 days. The rest of the cost is for the county to provide staffing, cleaning, food and other incidentals.

Hotel owner Neil Vashasiya said he is a franchisee and was instructed he could not rent out part of the hotel for this purpose. He said he dropped the daily rate to help the county.

“They (Comfort Inn) have been renting hotels in the Northern Kentucky area and that’s what they suggested me to do because I cannot keep half open and half closed,” Vashasiya said. “Because of this I offered them (the county) another independent hotel and it’s better for county because they don’t have to rent all the rooms.”

He said his brother owns a hotel the county could consider.

Bailer said the hotel quote was “a starting point to look at possible costs in the event we would need to house COVID-19 vulnerable populations who do not have a place to stay. We continue to look at additional options of many sorts to find the best, most cost effective, and safest place to quarantine someone who does not have an appropriate space in which to do so.”

The total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is now 124, and three people have died.

When the coronvirus fund was initiated Commissioner Cindy Carpenter wanted to give the health commissioner $200,000 outright to deal with the problem. Instead the commissioners authorized a general pool of $100,000 and authorized County Administrator Judi Boyko to spend up to that amount without their prior approval. Carpenter repeated her request Monday.

“If we put this $100,000 in there how do we guarantee that money is going to go to the board of health?” Carpenter said. “There are other ways to fund our other departments.”

Dixon said the county can’t just dole out money before actual expenses are incurred.

“I don’t think it’s lawful, the prosecutor has always stepped in and said you can’t do that,” he said. “We have to have contracts, POs (purchase orders) they can do all those, get them to us, Judi’s going to approve them, turn them around quickly,” Dixon said. “We don’t pay for anything before we get it, like we won’t write a check to that hotel for $180,000 first and not have used the services. If they won’t agree to those terms then we’re gonna have to go to the next one up, even if it costs more money.”

Bailer said the hotel housing will be for those who have been released from hospital emergency rooms or other health care providers.

“This is for people that are walking and talking, able to take care of themselves but who are experiencing symptoms or they may be waiting to see if they experience symptoms,” Bailer said. “This is not an infirmary, this is not a step-down hospital in any way.”

In addition to pumping more money into the general pool of coronavirus money the commissioners also agreed to redirect $75,000 in 2019 Community Development Block Grant funding to help the Butler County Housing and Homeless Coalition get more people out of shelters, where social distancing is difficult.

Mindy Muller with the Coalition said officials hope to “rehouse” 30 families with the money the commissioners approved.

“We have rehoused about 17 homeless households in the last couple of weeks into private apartments using private funds,” Muller said. “As we rehouse them we provide them a start-up kit (kitchen supply, bedding, food) to ensure they can shelter in place appropriately. The application presented to the county was to continue this rehousing effort across the county.”

The commissioners approved funding for the Oxford Food Pantry parking lot last year, but Development Director David Fehr said the project has stalled.

“They were just way behind on their fundraising, we were going to be the last dollars in, we were going to do the parking lot at the Food Pantry,” Fehr said. “They just simply won’t be ready by the time we are required by HUD to spend those dollars.”

Boyko told the commissioners there is federal funding that can help with these efforts. The county is slated to receive an additional $739,290 in CDBG funds this year from Department of Housing and Human Services, specifically for coronavirus response.

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