Pictured (l-r) are Highland County commissioners Gary Abernathy, Jeff Duncan and Terry Britton. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Pictured (l-r) are Highland County commissioners Gary Abernathy, Jeff Duncan and Terry Britton. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Highland County commissioners Jeff Duncan, Terry Britton and Gary Abernathy heard a report from Highland County Job and Family Services executive director Katie Smith and an update from representatives of Hecate Energy during their Wednesday, April 8 meeting.

Smith told commissioners that by the end of the week (April 10), 85 percent of the Job and Family Services staff will be working remotely full-time in an effort to promote physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Two weeks ago, we kind of shut down and did half staff in our office and rotated different days just to avoid overcrowding in the office,” Smith said. “By the end of this week, I’ll have my staff back up and working 40 hours.

“We have sent our state desktop computers home with our folks. They’ve got the ability to remote in. By the end of this week, we’ll be up and running fully again.”

The Job and Family Services lobby is closed to the public, but the building is accessible for those needing to pick up or drop off paperwork or applications, Smith said. To avoid coming in the building, she also recommended scanning or taking a photo of your paperwork and emailing it to highland-documents@jfs.ohio.gov.

Similarly, Smith recommended those needing to apply for SNAP and Medicaid benefits to do so remotely, either by internet or phone.

“Because our office is closed, it presents a little bit of a challenge to people applying for benefits, and we know there’s a whole lot of people needing benefits now while everything is shut down,” Smith said. “You can go online and apply at www.benefits.ohio.gov, or you can call 1-844-640-6446 to apply by phone.”

Smith told commissioners it was announced Tuesday that individuals enrolled in SNAP who do not already receive the maximum amount are eligible for increased benefits in March and April.

“If your maximum amount based on your family size wasn’t issued — it used to be because of your income — now they’re going to raise that to the maximum amount, and they will issue an additional amount for March, if you didn’t already get the maximum amount,” she said.

Online ordering for groceries paid for by EBT card is also available for SNAP recipients.

For others whose employment has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith said the department has established the COVID-19 Disaster Response Program, with limited funding. The program is open to Highland County residents and offers a one-time $500 check for those who are eligible.

“People who are eligible are families who have experienced a loss or decrease of income due to the coronavirus,” Smith said. “If you weren’t working before this and didn’t have any income, you’re not eligible. It’s for people who were working and through no fault of their own lost their employment and now they may have reduced or no income in their families.

“You must have a minor child in the home, or a pregnant woman with no other children in the home also qualifies. You must be income-eligible in the 30 days prior to the application date.”

Applications can be found at highlandjfs.org or in the Job and Family Services lobby and may be submitted via email or in the JFS lobby dropbox.

“A caseworker will contact you by phone to go over the application, and if approved, you will receive a check for $500 within 10 to 14 days to assist with rent, utilities, food, whatever you need,” Smith said. “This is one-time funding, and families can only apply once, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.”

For child protection, Smith said that visits at the Family Advocacy Center and foster home visits have been suspended, although the department continues to visit homes “for kids that are considered in unsafe situations in the home with their parents where we have concerns or on a safety plan.”

“We have suspended all visitation at the Family Advocacy Center between parents and children based on the stay at home order,” Smith said. “We’re encouraging our foster parents to allow children to contact their families via phone, FaceTime or Skype whenever possible. We understand that this is a difficult time for everyone, but we have to keep our staff, families and children safe.”

Smith also reminded commissioners that April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

“The #EverydayOhioHeroes campaign is underway to raise awareness about child abuse and neglect prevention,” Smith said. “It encourages all adults to ‘Be a Hero in the Eyes of a Child – one simple act of encouragement at a time.’”

On that topic, Smith encouraged the community to follow that advice particularly during the pandemic, as many children and adults are being ordered to stay at home.

“We know that this pandemic, the stay at home order, is going to have an impact on our child abuse and neglect numbers,” Smith said. “As people continue to stay at home cooped up with their children with nowhere to go and they can’t let their children go to a friend’s house, and then the stresses at home increase — they don’t have the money — that always creates a storm.

“Sometimes children suffer when adults don’t have good coping mechanisms. We really want to encourage everyone to keep their eye out on the kids in their neighborhoods. If you see something, say something. Call us, tell us what you see, tell us what you suspect.”

Smith told commissioners the JFS office is still “waiting on the storm to come for that because it’s going to be bad.”

In February, Smith reported that in December 2019, the county had 172 children in care, with placement costs of $3.4 million. Britton asked if the numbers “are staying around the same.”

“They are,” Smith said. “A lot of our court hearings have been continued because they don’t everybody in the courthouse. Our numbers are about the same.”

However, Smith said, “I see our numbers increasing at some point, unfortunately.”

Finally, Smith reminded the community that unemployment is handled through the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services office and not at the county level.

“As frustrating as it is, you need to call the state number or go online and work through them,” Smith said. “The state is working as hard as they can to process all the claims. Just be patient with them.”

Duncan thanked Smith for the update, with Abernathy adding that the local JFS “responsibilities are probably really affected more than anyone.” Smith agreed.

“Our applications have increased 10 times,” Smith said. “They’re out of this world. We knew we had to get everybody back up and working as soon as possible. We’re ready to handle it.”

• • •

Also during Wednesday morning’s meeting, commissioners and Highland County engineer Chris Fauber joined Hecate Energy representatives Jared Wren and Patti Shorr on a conference call in open session.

Hecate’s “300-megawatt solar-powered electric generation facility will occupy up to 1,919 acres within a 3,400 acre project area about 3.2 miles northwest of Mowrystown,” in the Buford area, according to the Ohio Power Siting Board. As previously reported, an additional 35 megawatts was approved last fall. The City of Cincinnati announced Nov. 21 that Hecate’s project, “the largest municipal solar array in the country,” will be constructed in Highland County to serve the city of Cincinnati’s residents and city facilities, according to a press release.

“We continue to make progress here the best we can, given the current situation,” Wren told commissioners, adding that they are working within the restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shorr agreed, saying that “we’ve not stopped our project development at all.”

“There are certain things that we must do in order to get ready for construction,” Shorr said. “It is our intent, to the extent possible, to keep moving on getting this project up and rolling.”

Wren told the local officials that Hecate needs to finalize a RUMA [Road Use Maintenance Agreement] with the county. He indicated that Hecate had drafted an agreement based on a RUMA from a similar project in Brown County and a template from Highland County “and tried to make a clean version of the document that we would propose to put in front of you guys as our starting point and essentially work from that.”

“It sounds like you and Chris need to sit down and go over this issues list, piece by piece, and make sure it fits in with our maintenance agreement the way that Chris wants it to,” Britton said.

Fauber said the template Highland County provided was from another solar project and that his “concern is if we go making modifications, other than wording or certain designations, that we’ve got to handle two different RUMAs through our county. We’d rather be consistent across the board.”

Fauber and Hecate’s representatives said they would schedule a time to discuss the RUMA together “line by line.”

Once the pandemic and its associated restrictions have eased, Wren said that Hecate also hopes to hold more “public outreach” events.

“The Siting Board is working as much as they can internally to continue to keep projects moving forward as best they can remotely,” Wren said. “As soon as we’re able safely and responsibly to get out in the community and have folks come together, we intend to do so, and certainly we’ll keep you guys in the loop in regard to the scheduling of such public engagement.”

For more on the Hecate project, go to: https://highlandcountypress.com/Content/In-The-News/In-The-News/Article/Highland-County-solar-facility-to-benefit-city-of-Cincinnati-PUCO-rejects-AEP-proposal-on-Highland-County-solar-projects/2/20/53915.

• • •

In other discussion:

• Abernathy said that the county has installed a window at the Hi-TEC building at the title office, and Duncan noted another one is likely to be added at the OhioMeansJobs department. Abernathy added these are “things that might continue to be used even after this situation passes.”

• Duncan reported that the Highland County Emergency Operations Center “continues meeting every morning at 8,” and he also participates in a daily conference call with other elected officials, including township trustees and mayors, as well as law enforcement. For the latter meeting, Duncan said they took a survey to determine whether to change the conference call to three times a week, with the majority opting to proceed with the daily update.

“Those folks out there continue to stay busy,” Duncan said. “The health department is doing several investigations on possible cases, so they’re doing a lot of follow-up.”

• Britton encouraged small businesses suffering due to the pandemic to visit businesshelp.ohio.gov.

“They’ve got a lot of information,” Britton said. “I think everyone’s going to need as much help as possible until this thing’s over, including us. The finances for the county are going to be skeletal.”

• Commissioners will continue to meet in the downstairs meeting room at the Administration Building on Wednesday mornings until further notice, according to Duncan.
In other action, commissioners approved:

• A contract between the Highland County Engineer and Palmer Engineering Company for bridge inspections and load ratings for two structures on Gibler and Sicily roads; and

• A letter of commitment for a loan application for the United States Department of Labor’s Pathway Home Initiative.

(Editor’s note: A bid opening — which commissioners mentioned at their April 1 meeting — is actually scheduled for April 15, not April 8.)