Dan Joyce, Malheur County judge. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)

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VALE – Malheur County is putting in place spending restrictions while also providing its employees up to two weeks in new paid leave in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The Malheur County Court approved the actions Wednesday, bracing for increased county costs to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.  

The spending limits stop new hiring in all departments unless the county court approves and suspends any changes to higher pay scales.

The court will decide whether to fill open positions on a “case-by-case basis,” according to its resolution.

Travel out of the county for officials was also be limited. Instead, employees or department heads are supposed to use electronic or telephonic conferencing for seminars, meetings and conferences.

The resolution also called for “elected officials and department heads to voluntarily conserve in all areas of their budgets not covered or directed by this resolution.”

County officials also must report “unavoidable or unexpected overspending” immediately. Requests to overspend or other budget transfers must be approved by the county court.

Malheur County Administrative Officer Lorinda DuBois is also required to provide monthly updates to the count court on the status of the county’s budget.

The court Wednesday also approved a new sick leave policy for county employees.

According to the new policy, an employee who is unable to work or telework because of a “qualifying reason related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” gets up to 40 hours of additional leave on top of already provided sick leave and other paid time off. Employees don’t have to use accrued sick leave for absences related to COVID-19.

All county employees – with two categories that are exceptions – are eligible. The county employs about 180 people. The new paid sick leave policy is not available to health care providers or emergency responders.

Employees will qualify for the new policy if they are placed in quarantine to meet federal or state regulations or if they have been advised to do so by a local health provider, or they are diagnosed or currently being treated for COVID-19 symptoms.

Employees can use the new leave if they are required to care for a quarantined person or a person who was advised to be quarantined. If an employee needs to care for their child because their school or daycare is closed, they are also eligible.

DuBois said in an email there would be no additional cost to the county because of the emergency leave policy, other than some additional overtime for the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office.

The county may also soon dip into its contingency fund to meet the COVID-19 virus crisis.

DuBois said Wednesday that Lt. Rich Harriman, the county’s emergency services director, may need contingency money to buy personal protective equipment for first responders. DuBois said Harriman has “arranged for weekly shipments of PPE (personal protective equipment) kits not to exceed 1,000.”

The cost of 1,000 PPE kits would be “under $30,000,” said DuBois.

DuBois also said Harriman can stop the order before reaching the 1,000 benchmarks if he feels the county has enough.

The county’s contingency – or rainy day - fund isn’t as robust as it was six months ago. That’s because county elected leaders spent $969,900 from the fund to pay for a $3 million land deal north of Nyssa in December. The transfer took more than half of the total amount in its contingency fund – budgeted for this year at $1.7 million.