SACRAMENTO – After a meeting tinged with confusion and contention, County supervisors voted unanimously Wednesday to give area health officials $45 million for the next six months of their continued efforts to battle the coronavirus pandemic.

Sacramento County Board of Supervisors Chair Phil Serna called for a special meeting this week to address the County’s use of the coronavirus pandemic relief funds.

The allocation came after Board Chair Phil Serna asked County Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye to come back before the Board, following a presentation last week in which the public spoke out against a controversial move by County Executive Nav Gill to use the bulk of COVID-19 relief fund money to fund the sheriff’s department.

Sacramento County received $181 million from the U.S.Treasury’s Coronavirus Relief Fund. The County spent $146.8 million “to cover payroll costs for existing employees and services and $1.2 million in new or enhanced services to address the impact of COVID-19 for a total of $148 million.” That number includes $104 million to the Sheriff’s department for salaries, benefits and administrative days off.

Dr. Kasirye and Director of Health Services Dr. Peter Beilensen have made multiple trips before the Board to ask for more money to combat the virus. Dr. Beilenson said the County has approved $23.5 million in requests. Supporters argue that if the money was there, County health officials shouldn’t have to keep going back to the Board in “piecemeal” fashion.
Dr. Kasirye said she’s prepared to go before the Board as many times as needed to get what’s needed to address the pandemic.

“I’m not a budget person,” she said. “They’re the ones with the purse strings.”

Dr. Kasirye and her team previously listed their needs at $90 million, to cover the prolonged period of time they expect to be dealing with the current public health crisis. That $90 million wish list was reduced, she said, because she was going on the fact that CARES Act money must be spent by the end of December, and in order to be in compliance with that, she took off items that would have been for after that time.

Dr. Kasirye said a modified list of $45 million in needs was submitted to the CRF Committee that Gill heads in July, but her staff came back and told her that the Committee was no longer taking requests. Upon Dr. Beilenson’s suggestion that they ask again, she said she was in the process of creating a lesser ask of $20-25 million, which would take up the remaining CARES Act monies, when Serna asked to see the $45 million request in its entirety.

Deputy County Executive Bruce Wagstaff and Gill, who previously said “anything departments asked for, they got,” both maintained that Dr. Kasirye did not submit the original request for $45 million.

“I don’t want to be argumentative about this, but there was no direction from the Committee that we were no longer accepting applications,” Gill said.

Although she is soft spoken, Dr. Kasirye stood her ground, insisting that her team submitted the request and that it was turned away.

“Here’s the elephant in the room. There’s a disconnect that has happened on this,” Gill said.

Supervisors Patrick Kennedy and Don Notolli said they were appalled to think that residents suffered because they were disconnected from help they could have received if health officials had gotten the funding they needed.

“I’m not looking to place blame, but I believe people probably died because of that, because they didn’t get tested,” Supervisor Kennedy said. “That is more than a breakdown in communication, that is a disservice to the people we all serve.”

Supervisor Sue Frost assessed the issue as “a couple of people who didn’t get the memo” and weren’t “on the same page” as everyone else. Ms. Frost praised Gill for doing “an amazing job on getting the money where it needed to go.”

“I don’t know why we’re here today,” she said.

To Gill, she said, “We gave you the authority. We didn’t need to go through all of this. They don’t have to do it (request money) through us. That’s not what we do.”

Serna was clearly not on the same page.

“At the end of the last meeting on the 11th, these two individuals — Dr. Kasirye and Dr. Beilenson — stood where they are today and debated figures, $40 million, $45 million, $20 million, $25 million. I know my constituents are confused. I was confused. Nothing in writing that I’d ever seen from a public health officer. That’s why we’re here today.

“Nothing can be more obvious that something is broken, something is wrong when one supervisor says what they just said after another supervisor to her left says, ‘I don’t know if I’m assuming this correctly, but people died because of this.’ The difference between these two opinions about this issue tells me as chair, absolutely this meeting had to happen,” Serna shared.

Dr. Beilenson said the $45 million will be spent in five main areas, including $19.2 million to pay for microbiologists and other staffing, as current workers are “running on fumes;” $15.3 to collaborate and partner with community-based agencies to conduct public outreach and education and “provide wrap around services to disadvantaged communities in order to facilitate adherence to measures that reduce the spread of infection;” $4 million to prepare for the upcoming flu season and for the time when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available; and $3.5 million for improved access to testing and timely results and an increase in the number of tests the County is able to do from 5,000 to 9,000 tests per month.

“We want to have a big push to start moving the needle and getting these numbers down so we can get off the state monitoring list, reduce the number of deaths and be able to open more of our businesses and our schools,” Dr. Kasirye said.

Serna says the allocated $45 million will largely come from what’s left of the CARES Act money and the General Fund as that’s where the “swapped” money is.

Several residents and stakeholders have called into the recent meetings representing the CARES for the People Coalition (CFTP), a diverse group “working to ensure that Sacramento County’s $181 million in CARES Act funding prioritizes Public Health.” Area activist Kula Koenig, who once worked for former Board Chair Roger Dickinson, was slated to make a presentation on behalf of the CFTP at Wednesday’s meeting, questioning the legality of the expenditures, calling for accountability and urging the County to “give back” the money it allocated to corrections. Ms. Koening’s presentation was cancelled just prior to the meeting.

“We want greater accountability,” she told the OBSERVER.

Ms. Koenig said she and others began asking where the money was going in May. CFTP formed in the last two weeks after learning how the federal money has been spent. The group, she says, consists of 40 plus community-based organizations.

“We all recognize the need for the County CARES Act money to be used in a way that uplifts community and small businesses, that’s why you have such a larger coalition of people who kind of differ on a lot of things, but we all agree that this CARES Act money, having 85 percent of it going to law enforcement is not what’s right for the community right now,” Ms. Koening said.

While some are calling for Gill to be fired, others are asking him for an accounting on what the Sheriff’s Department has done related to COVID-19 that would warrant receiving $104 million in pandemic response money. That aspect has not been discussed at either Board meeting.

Greater Sacramento Urban League President and CEO Cassandra Jennings was among those concerned with the potential damage underfunding the pandemic response efforts can have. Ms. Jennings pointed to the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on people of color and people in under-resourced areas. Ms. Jennings said she wants to see more discussion and transparency on how the money was spent.

“The fact that we are having this conversation so late in the game is disturbing,” she said.

Local epidemiologist Dr. Flojaune Cofer agreed, calling the hearing “a day late and $104 million short.”

Like many others, Dr. Cofer wondered why there were no health experts on the CRF Committee.

“Dr. Kasirye should be on the committee making decisions for where the COVID dollars go and directing the other departments on how they can use their units to be responsive to the pandemic. To be clear, they should never have to ask. This is their money, they should not have to fight for this money.”

Dr. Cofer said Gill should not have been given a “blank check.”

Sierra Health Foundation and The Center President and CEO Chet Hewitt says moving forward, the Board needs to provide greater oversight to ensure that funds are put to their intended purpose as rapidly as possible.
“A pandemic leaves no time for confusion,” Hewitt said. “It leaves no time for folks to be disorganized, because lives and livelihoods are indeed at stake.”

Serna says he’ll be meeting with Dr. Kasirye on a weekly basis from here on out to monitor needs.

On a related note, Serna closed out Wednesday’s hearing by dedicating the session to his uncle Ruben Serna, who recently died from COVID complications in a care facility where he resided.

By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer