Ellis County Commissioners may consider giving hazard pay to EMS, fire and law enforcement workers if the number of COVID-19 cases in the county jumps significantly.


The commissioners Monday night at their regular meeting tabled a request for $5,300 in hazard pay over the next two weeks for more than two dozen full- and part-time EMS employees.


EMS director Jason Kennedy asked the commissioners to approve a $50 a week stipend for the 24 full-time EMS employees, and a $10 per shift stipend for part-time employees who fill in as needed, through April.


“I also understand that EMS is not the only frontline workers out there. We work as a team with Hays Fire, with the Sheriff’s Department, with the Hays Police Department and all the support staff, really, from the county in its entirety. It takes a whole team to push us forward,” Kennedy said. “I’m here to ask for that stipend today to really incentivize, retain and really, hopefully, recruit, to show the level of care that we have for EMS and to hopefully allow this situation to be less of an impact, at least on that group.”


Kennedy said at any time, EMS has eight people on shift, including two people per truck for the department’s four trucks.


“It’s been really impossible to modify shifts or anything like that,” he said. “We’re at a bare minimum of staffing every day.”


While acknowledging that EMS responders are frontline workers, Commission Chairman Butch Schlyer said there are others in the same boat.


“For me to really embrace this, I have to include law enforcement,” Schlyer said. “I just have to. I can’t tell Sheriff Harbin that his guys aren’t as worthy as EMS personnel.”


“I absolutely, completely agree with that,” Kennedy said. “I would be 100% in support of something that is more encompassing.”


“I have similar concerns,” said Commissioner Dustin Roths. “The other concern is the optics to the taxpayer right now. The price of a barrel of oil is negative 13 dollars last time I looked.”


“Try $38.50 cents at 4 o’clock,” said Commissioner Dean Haselhorst, citing how far negative the benchmark price for U.S. crude oil fell on Monday.


“So I imagine we’re seeing widespread people losing their jobs throughout Ellis County,” Roths said. “So the optics is something I’m concerned about from the taxpayers.”


Roths suggested tabling the matter until this coming Monday, when the commissioners can hold a special meeting outside their regular schedule of the first four Mondays of the month.


Currently, Ellis County has held steady at eight cases of the virus, with four of those patients now in recovery.


“I love that he advocates for the people that are going to work. He talked to me about the concern of the frontlines, contracting COVID-19 and then taking it home to your family,” Roths said of Kennedy and the EMS employees. “It’s not a big dollar item, it’s a perception from the community, that we’re protecting their hard-earned dollars.”


Haselhorst agreed.


“Let’s just kind of see maybe what the cases will do,” he said, noting that the Sheriff’s Department, Kansas Highway Patrol and others are also frontline.


EMS and the Ellis County Health Department recently received grants targeted at COVID-19 response, including $41,000 from the federal CARES Act, and it’s possible some of the non-CARES money could cover hazard pay for some employees, Kennedy indicated.


At this point, he said, EMS has plenty of personal protective gear, and the training to go with it.


“You guys made an investment in that even years ago,” Kennedy said. “That’s been something we’ve had, is the supplies, and the money to purchase the supplies that we need. So coming into this we had decent levels of PPE.”


He also praised Ellis County Emergency Management director Darin Myers for getting additional PPE supplies from the state.


Kennedy said the Kansas Department of Health and Environment is working with health departments across the state to expand testing, and point-of-care testing in hot spots like Ford and Finney counties, where the meatpacking industry has been hit hard with COVID-19.


Across the state, though, 89% of the virus tests that come back, come back negative, he said, which is a good sign.


“We don’t have as widespread of community transmission, I do believe, especially out here in the western part of the state,” Kennedy said. “I do think there is some light at the end of the tunnel.”


Right now the state has a surplus of 4,300 hospital beds, according to independent research by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, via healthdata.org. Kansas has an extra 230 ICU beds, the research also shows, he said. But anything can change, he indicated.


“None of us know what tomorrow looks like, we don’t know what next week looks like, we don’t know about the week after that,” Kennedy said.


In other action:


• The commissioners authorized the lease/purchase of a 12M3 Caterpillar grader from Foley Equipment, of Wichita, with delivery in two weeks from the purchase.


The grader, a demo with 30 hours on it and auto articulation and slope control, is the same model as two others the county recently bought.


The cost is $223,400, or $35,857 a year, at 3% interest financed through Foley. The deal includes the trade-in of a 2006 140H grader, and covers the cost of tires, oil filters and service calls, said Public Works director Bill Ring.


The deal allows for the county to buy the grader for $1 at the end of seven years, when the machine will still be worth anywhere from $100,000 to $120,000, Ring said.


The grader replaces a 2006 grader with 13,000 hours that is currently down and in need of repair.


• Roths will ask Doug Williams, executive director of the county’s economic development arm, Grow Hays, if that organization would want to share the cost and benefits of employing a dedicated grant writer and administrator for entities in the county and its communities.


Schlyer said he wasn’t opposed to such an investment, but wanted some assurance of what a grant writer and administrator could deliver.


The idea of asking Grow Hays came up after Haselhorst hesitated at the county hiring its own grant writer, particularly until the county finishes the hiring process for a county administrator.


“I’d kind of like to wait and see when we get an administrator,” Haselhorst said. “My biggest concern is where’s that money going to come from? That’s great if they write all these grants, but we still gotta pay the position. I’d even like to look at an outside source as a contractor.”


• Myers was instructed to reply to Randy Hrabe, executive director of the Northwest Kansas Planning and Development Commission in Hill City, that the county doesn’t have the money to pay its 2020 dues to the organization.