Trumbull Pauses on COVID Vaccination Building

WARREN, Ohio – A new legal opinion has paused plans by two Trumbull County Commissioners to move forward on constructing a building at the Trumbull County Fairgrounds to facilitate mass COVID-19 vaccinations.

Commissioners Frank Fuda and Mauro Cantalamessa said they would review the new legal guidance from Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins, which calls into question their plan to bypass a formal competitive bid process and have the structure built via the state purchasing program to allow construction to begin more quickly.

“The intent of that project is still very much what we want to do. What’s being called into question is the time in which it can be completed,” Cantalamessa said during the commissioners regular meeting Wednesday, when they were expected to act on approving a contract for the building.

Fuda and Cantalamessa both supported plans that were announced last week to build the structure at the fairgrounds utilizing funds from the federal coronavirus relief package approved last spring. The structure would have been built to accommodate three lanes of traffic and permit individuals being vaccinated to remain in their vehicles, allowing vaccinations to be administered at an accelerated rate.

In a Jan. 29 letter to the commissioners, the Trumbull County Board of Health requested that commissioners authorize the release of up to $400,000 in coronavirus aid funds to construct the building. The health department explored alternative locations, including the Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Youngstown-Warren Regional airport and the former Kmart distribution center.

Commissioners received a subsequent letter from the health board Feb. 25 asking that they approve paying $318,625 to Wecover Building systems, Beloit, to construct a 70-foot-by-132-foot fabric tension building. The price is significantly below the $481,061.45 cost identified in the Sourcewell cooperative purchasing agreement, of which Trumbull County is a member. Though there would be additional costs related to excavation, building approach work and utilities hookups, those were anticipated to still be less than $400,000.

With some exceptions, the Ohio Revised Code requires most county expenditures in excess of $50,000 to be competitively bid. In a Feb. 25 opinion, Watkins indicated that permits a political subdivision “eligible to participate in a joint purchasing program operated by or through a national or state association of political subdivisions to purchase supplies or services from another party under equivalent terms, conditions and specification but at a lower price” without having to go through competitive bidding.

The two commissioners sought to avoid the bid process to allow the structure to be built more quickly and allow them to get more people vaccinated sooner.

A subsequent opinion Watkins issued Tuesday cited a 2019 opinion from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office arguing the Ohio General Assembly “did not intend construction or construction services” to be purchased under the previously cited authority.

“I now believe there would be a serious legal and/or audit risk should the Board attempt to procure the construction of a new building under this new statute,” Watkins wrote.

The board now will have to assess whether it will move forward with the building, Cantalamessa said. “It may not be as practical as we thought. We don’t know,” he remarked.

Construction of the building itself would take about six weeks and a bid process would add weeks to the project timeline. President Joe Biden said Tuesday there would be enough coronavirus vaccine for all adults by the end of May. A one-shot vaccine by Johnson & Johnson recently received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval and Merck is partnering with the rival drug maker to produce the vaccine.

Vaccinations are also expected to accelerate through utilization of pop-up clinics and distribution through commercial pharmacies.

The late May timeline “calls into question the necessity of this building, so it seems we’ve got to digest it as a board,” Cantalamessa said.

Commissioner Niki Frenchko, who voted against authorizing the money for the building last month, cited guidance in the Federal Register Wednesday regarding the coronavirus funds. Use of funds to acquire or improve property is limited “to that which is necessary” because of the pandemic, and a government entity “must determine that it is not able to meet the need arising from the public health emergency in a cost-effective manner by leasing property or equipment or by improving property already owned and maintain documentation to support this determination,” according to the Register.

Additionally, she said other portions of the project would have required competitive bidding and she further cited access concerns for county residents who lacked transportation to get to the fairgrounds.

“Now that this building isn’t moving forward, the health department will be forced to think outside of the box, to actually begin efforts that were suggested overwhelmingly by the community to meet people where they are,” she said. Those suggestions include utilizing churches, community centers and senior centers, she said.

Funds not used for the building potentially could be used to provide rent and food assistance, aid to businesses, or to hire additional personnel to assist with vaccinations, she said.

“That $400,000 can go a long way in the hands of people who need it and when there are alternatives for people getting vaccinated,” she said.

Neither of her colleagues is ready to rule out moving forward with the building.

“We’re going to look at it all this week, talk to everybody involved,” Fuda said.

“At the end of the day, no one knows what’s going to happen with this thing. No one knows how long immunity lasts. No one knows if we’re going to have to do this repeatedly year after year,” Cantalamessa said.

Pictured: In this Feb. 24 file photo, Trumbull County Combined Health District board member Jack Simon shows U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan the site where the county looked to build its drive-thru vaccination building.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.