Eau Claire County Courthouse

What started seven months ago as an inquiry into DHS financial practices has progressed into a criminal investigation that includes a forensic audit.

Uncertainties remain about Eau Claire County’s 2020 budget because of COVID-19.

During the Eau Claire County COVID-19 task force meeting Wednesday afternoon, County Finance Director Norb Kirk discussed 2020 sales tax collections thus far. Through the first five months of 2020, total sales tax revenue stands at about $4.16 million, slightly behind the same time span last year, when the county received around $4.21 million in sales taxes.

Those nearly even numbers are largely due to January and February 2020 sales tax revenue being better than the first two months of 2019. When measuring March through May of the two years, the county is down about $392,000 in 2020. That is an average of about $131,000 per month since coronavirus hit in full force. Projected over 10 months, that would equal a shortage of about $1.31 million this year.

“Clearly we are seeing the impact of COVID on sales tax collection,” Kirk said. “It’s not as bad as we may think it may have been heading into this … Things are progressing better than we would have anticipated at this point.”

County Administrator Kathryn Schauf provided an update on potential funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. She said the funding allocation is “still very ambiguous” and that the county is waiting on final answers from the state and federal governments.

The county is currently projecting to receive about $1.6 million in CARES Act funding, but the number might be less than that. The funding would mainly cover unbudgeted expenses this year.

Other business

Schauf said the county is also staying updated regarding schools reopening and how it would impact county employees, who may have children who are students or live with people who are teachers.

Unknowns regarding schools’ fall plans remain, and Schauf said the county wants to help employees “navigate this changing environment in such a way that it is beneficial from an operational standpoint … but also so our employees are not detrimentally affected.”

“Reopening schools has a lot to do with our success as a community as a whole,” Schauf said.

County Board Chair Nick Smiar requested adding an item to the County Board meeting agenda later this month for a report about filling vacant county positions, noting that the information could partially relieve employees’ worries about job security.

“I have a sense that many of our staff, in a sense, are walking on eggs, asking, ‘Am I next?’” Smiar said. “It’s a way to provide real information to them about what’s going on. I don’t know if it will allay all those anxieties, but I think it certainly would help.”

The next County Board meeting is scheduled for Aug. 18.