How county emergency operation centers are coping with extra costs during COVID-19 pandemic

Some local county emergency operation centers have been open during the coronavirus crisis, and many county employees have taken on new roles at new pay rates.

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. — Some local county emergency operation centers have been open during the coronavirus crisis, and many county employees have taken on new roles at new pay rates.

Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray looked into the extra costs counties had no way of anticipating, all the while receiving less money in sales and tourism tax, and asks whether this could mean you end up paying more taxes in the years to come.

Throughout Central Florida, local governments have different versions of a policy, which allows employees to be paid above their normal salaries during disasters. These are typically used during hurricanes, or in this case, a pandemic. But 9 Investigates learned the rules of who can receive the additional pay vary greatly from county to county.

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From distributing PPE, to dispatch, Seminole County leaders say some of their employees are busy doing jobs they wouldn’t normally do.

“We have individuals from environmental services, IT, answering phone calls from individuals who are COVID positive,” Emergency Manager Alan Harris explained. “[These are] people who are afraid for family members. That is not their normal day-to-day job.”

Harris has been busy briefing residents from the county’s emergency operations center since March, and he’s one of more than 70 county employees entitled to special pay during the COVID-19 crisis.

“A person who has been reassigned to disaster duty, something that is not their day-to-day job, something that is above and beyond what they would normally do, they are subject to disaster pay,” Harris said.

9 Investigates crunched the payroll totals under Seminole’s disaster pay policy. For just one pay period, the extra money topped $50,000.

We surveyed other counties in Central Florida, and so far, only Orange County is paying employees disaster pay similar to Seminole. In Orange, more than 160 employees are eligible for an additional $15-20 an hour, depending on the role.

As of the last week in April, the total from Orange County was about $80,000 in unanticipated payroll — a drop in the bucket considering the county’s multi-billion-dollar annual budget.

Though it may not sound like a lot, Harris points out payroll is just one portion of unanticipated county spending in response to the pandemic. He says totals could climb to hurricane-levels before the crisis ends.

“No one knows how long this is going to last, but I would say close to a million dollars,” Harris predicted. “A little more than a million.”

We asked whether that means residents should anticipate future tax increases to replenish reserves.

“It’s very hard to know. If I had a crystal ball, I could tell you this could be over in June, and we’ll be OK,” Harris said. “If this extends longer than that, or we have a second wave, all bets are off.”