NORTH HAVERHILL — Grafton and Sullivan counties plan to allocate about $3 million in federal aid to recruit and retain staff who officials worry could leave their posts for more lucrative and less stressful jobs in the private sector.
Grafton County hopes to spend $1.6 million on stipends for employees at its nursing home and the county jail, with another $261,000 going to other county staffers.
Meanwhile, Sullivan County last month approved $570,000 in additional payments to essential workers, along with $500,000 to help staff a backlog of cases handled by the county attorney’s office.
Both counties plan to use money from Congress’ $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, to cover the pay increases, along with other infrastructure needs. Vermont towns across the Upper Valley are also getting more money than anticipated.
Grafton County Administrator Andrew Dorsett said Friday that his employees are facing two problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many, he said, are feeling burned out by the long hours and staffing shortages that were made acute as coronavirus cases rose, leading some to seek employment elsewhere.
Others are worried about federal vaccine mandates, including the one announced by the Biden administration last month for all nursing-home employees. Dorsett estimated that about a quarter of Grafton County’s nursing-home staff isn’t vaccinated, and he worries people would resign before getting a shot.
“People are just kind of worn out,” he said. “People are getting overworked, and staffing levels are so tight.”
Sullivan County Attorney Marc Hathaway told the county delegation late last month that staffing challenges — he’s down two employees — also put stress on his office.
With courts reopening, he said, it could be two years before criminal cases that piled up throughout the pandemic get cleared.
“The caseload is continuing to build, the backlog remains and the choke point is trying cases,” Hathaway said in a CCTV video of the meeting.
The American Rescue Plan set aside millions of dollars for towns and counties to pay essential workers, make up for lost revenue and pay for water, sewer and broadband projects.
Sullivan County started making use of its roughly $8.4 million in rescue funds earlier this summer when lawmakers set aside $300,000 to cover revenue lost during the coronavirus pandemic.
The county delegation also allocated $100,000 for vaccine incentives, $50,000 for lead paint abatement programs and $25,000 to the Sullivan County trails plan.
Overall, Sullivan County has about $6.8 million in rescue money left.
“There’s no talk of any other initiatives,” Sullivan County Manager Derek Ferland said. “Collectively, we’re expecting to keep that in reserve for a potential nursing-home project.”
A committee of lawmakers is currently exploring how best to move forward with renovation of the Sullivan County nursing home, which was previously expected to cost $54 million.
However, Democrats objected to that number during budget proceedings, saying they don’t want to overburden taxpayers. They’ve instead set a goal of $35 million.
The committee is supposed to produce recommendations on Sept. 30 but hasn’t yet reached a consensus, Ferland said.
Grafton County, which is expected to receive $17.4 million in ARPA funds, plans to use $670,000 on cybersecurity upgrades, $250,000 on scanning documents at the register of deeds office and $41,500 on a test well at the county complex.
The Grafton County delegation’s executive committee was scheduled to meet Monday to discuss the recommendations.
State Rep. George Sykes, the Lebanon Democrat who chairs the group, said he’d like to see improvements that would impact “the lives of citizens in Grafton County.”
“We’re going to be looking at more than just infrastructure projects at the county complex,” he said.
Sykes said that could include expanding broadband to rural areas, including a $250,000 allocation to help towns and cities connect to a proposed 350-mile fiber Internet network.
In Vermont, about $121 million allocated to counties, which oversee courthouses and sheriff’s departments, is instead being funneled to municipalities at the behest of the state’s congressional delegation.
That means Hartford, Vt., which was on track to receive more than $1 million in rescue funds, will get another $1.8 million.
Meanwhile, Norwich’s share will increase to $662,000, up from the roughly $356,000 announced earlier this year.
“It’s going to be very helpful,” Woodstock Municipal Manager William Kerbin Jr. said of the additional funds. “It will be a great addition to addressing our infrastructure needs.”
The Woodstock Selectboard and Board of Village Trustees are working together to coordinate how the funds will be used, with a decision expected in about a month, Kerbin said.
The village, a separate municipal entity, is expected to receive $256,000 in ARPA money.
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