GOSHEN - Orange County had long wanted a new morgue and more spacious quarters for its Medical Examiner's Office when a windfall landed in its lap last year, just as those plans were finally moving forward.
Now officials plan to use $17 million of the county's nearly $75 million in promised relief money from Washington for an 18,000-square-foot building, which they hope to start by the end of the year. That outside cash would cover most of the $23 million cost estimate and avoid adding more debt through bonds, which must be paid back with interest.
The funding came through a chunk of the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package that Democrats in Congress had chased for almost a year: $350 billion in aid to state and local governments whose finances were walloped by pandemic expenses and decimated sales-tax revenue.
All Hudson Valley counties reaped benefits from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, with population-based amounts ranging from almost $15 million for Sullivan County to $188 million for Westchester County. The governments already have gotten the first half of their funding and are due to get the second half this year.
Each had plenty of eligible uses for that money. In Ulster County, officials and lawmakers carved out at least eight broad areas for the $35 million Ulster will get over two years. Among the top-funded priorities: $6 million to help small businesses and spark business development; $6 million for infrastructure and recreational trails; and $5 million to improve mental-health and addiction services.
Sullivan County lawmakers, meanwhile, split their first year of funding two ways: $3.8 million for county road improvements and $3.6 million for capital projects at SUNY Sullivan, the community college in Loch Sheldrake.
Orange County officials are disclosing their first-year spending list for the first time on Tuesday, when they are due to present the requests to a panel of county lawmakers for approval. The new Medical Examiner's Office is the biggest item, making up 45% of the $37 million in 2021 relief funds.
The small county agency, which has its offices in the county Emergency Services Center, has been getting by for almost nine years with using two trailers behind the building as a morgue and autopsy room to investigate unexpected deaths. The county first leased those trailers in 2013 in what was supposed to be a short-term arrangement.
Toward the end of 2020, county officials introduced plans for a 13,000-square-foot building for the Medical Examiner's Office with an estimated cost of $11.6 million. But by last fall, after the relief funding was approved, the building size had increased and the price tag had doubled. County officials attributed the higher cost partly to the pandemic raising labor and materials costs.
Administration officials and their consultants are set to update lawmakers on the building project at a committee meeting on Jan. 24.
Orange plans to spend most of the remaining money in its first relief installment as follows: $10 million for personal protective gear and COVID-19 test kits; $6.4 million to upgrade the sewage treatment plant at the county's 360-bed Valley View Center for Nursing Care and Rehabilitation; and $3.8 million for "cybersecurity insurance, software and hardware."
The county also has allocated about $200,000 for three accounting and technology firms to help plan the use of the relief funding and track the expenses.
In addition to the relief funds, Orange and other counties have seen their sales-tax revenue roar back from the steep plunge it took in 2020 after the pandemic struck and businesses were shut down.
Orange County came out so far ahead of expectations last year that it is poised to give almost $13 million in additional sales tax to its municipalities for the fourth quarter of 2021. Lawmakers on the Ways and Means Committee are set to take up that proposal on Tuesday, right after voting on the allocation of the county's relief money.
This article originally appeared on Times Herald-Record: Orange County plans to use $17 million in pandemic relief for building