January 19, 2022

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WilCo Judge Seeks $8.2K Reimbursement For Mask Needs

WILLIAMSON COUNTY, TX — Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell is seeking to be reimbursed more than $8,000 for supplies he and his wife purchased to make protective fabric face coverings for first responders amid the new coronavirus outbreak.

The request for reimbursement on a $8,263 expenditure is on the Williamson County Comssissioners Court agenda for the April 21 meeting. According to receipts attached to the upcoming agenda, the money was spent at Hobby Lobby stores in Cedar Park, Georgetown and Round Rock for scissors and other sewing supplies.

The agenda item — the 40th item listed on the commissioners court packet, reads:

“Discuss, consider and take appropriate action on approving a reimbursement in the amount of $8,263.24 to Judge Bill Gravell, Jr. and Jill Gravell relating to their purchase of supplies to make masks to be used during the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Williamson County, Texas; and find that such reimbursement provides an overall public benefit and public purpose by attempting to aid in the protection of the public’s health and safety during the current pandemic and that such expenditure and reimbursement is not for the private and personal benefit of Judge Bill Gravell, Jr. and Jill Gravell.”

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Critics of the remibursement request include “Buddy Falcon,” a pseudonym for a prominent government watchdog airing concerns on social media. The Mask Brigade has sought donated items for its fabric covering needs even as Gravell now seeks to be reimbursed.

Gravell told reporters on Monday he paid for the items with a personal check rather than with a credit card. The judge explained the hobby stores’s credit card machines weren’t working at the time of the purchase given the company’s “non-essential” status amid the pandemic, which prevented him from using the county credit card for the expenditures.

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Yet the Hobby Lobby website allows for customers to pay with their choice of debit or credit card — especially given that all the company’s stores are temporarily closed given their “non-essential” status as noted on its portal. It’s unclear why Gravell would choose to pay with a personal check, let alone buy from three differnet stores rather than utilize one-stop shopping at the website.

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Gravell submitted itemized lists of the items purchased, but no copies of canceled checks.

The materials ostensibly were purchased for use by the so-called “Mask Brigade,” a group of volunteers making protective fabric face coverings that first responders can use. The volunteers have made some 1,700 face coverings since forming in mid-April, as its organizers previously announced.

The expenditure is the latest questionable purchase unilaterally made by Gravell amid the coronavirus outbreak. During the April 14 Williamson County Commissioners Court meeting, Gravell was taken to task by the body’s members for having approved two major purchases without competitive bidding or consultation with county commissioners.

The first expenditure totaled $18,340 to rent eight travel trailers from Woody RV Rentals to be used as temporary housing for members of the Emergency Services Operation Center, as outlined in the April 14 Williamson County Commissioners Court agenda.

The second Gravell expenditure totaling $13,020 from Thermal Trek Inc. for five refrigerated trailers used as makeshift morgues — housing up to 24 bodies each — for patients dying of respiratory illness — even as the county has reported just four deaths attributed to COVID-19 virus infection. Unlike the other contract that allowed for cancellation that averted some of the cost, the cost for the thermal trucks was already spent.

“I have asked at the [Emergency Services Operation Center] what the plan is,” Commissioner Russ Boles said. “Something has to be driving our spending. There has to be something other than ‘I’ve got a feeling’ or ‘I watch the news’ that drives our spending. And I don’t know that I’ve gotten a good answer on how or why. I’ve got to understand more, and I need to understand what’s driving our spending.”

Commissioner Cook echoed similar concerns: “I realize we’re under emergency conditions…and the judge has the right to sign off on stuff. But I feel like maybe we need 9 o’clock Friday mornings to really look at what’s on the horizon. We need to address that because this is a lot of money.”

Commissioner Valerie Covey called for the termination of the trailers contract to avoid having the county pay for another 30-day rental cost. Gravell declined to specify how many people were using the trailers, citing “security reasons” while adding they were being used “every day.” The amendment to the rental agreement passed, setting the stage for the trailers to be picked up on April 30.

Efforts for a similar amendment to avoid the cost of the refrigerated trailers was unsuccessful given that the money already had been spent. Boles interjected again, noting the average funeral home in the area has capacity to handle 30 to 50 deceased people — again noting there were four deaths from the coronavirus to date in the county. “We have to have a reason to spend the money other than it seemed a good idea at the time,” Boles said. “And I am displeased with the whole process here.”

In trying to explain his rationale in securing the refrigerated trucks, Gravell said he spoke to officials at two area funeral homes for insight. “The challenge with funeral homes right now is they’re having trouble moving forward — at that time, commissioner — they were having trouble communicating.”

The judge said funeral home directors were having trouble signing off on cremation orders, prompting him to secure the refrigerated trucks: “They were telling us they were having trouble moving decedents because they couldn’t get doctors to sign off on cremation orders. Perhaps we overprepared,” he acknowledged of his decision to rent the trucks without prior approval by the full commissioners court. “I just…that was the decision made at the time.”

Responded Boles: “I’m still not sure I follow your logic, and I don’t want to sit there and pick it apart just now. There has to be a method to our madness, and I’ve got nowhere near an explationa ast to what our methods is,” Boles said. “This was not urgent business,” he added. “This is somthing that could have ben brought before the court.”

In another coronavirus-related controversy, Gravell more recently came under fire for securing a sheriff’s deputy to drive him and his wife to their daughters’ home in Jarrell, Texas, for a grandson’s birthday party — breaking his own order for people to stay home to blunt the spread of illness except for the most essential of outings. Gravell arrived at the party dressed as a firefighter with taxpayer-funded equipment borrowed from the Jarrell fire department. After photos of Gravell emerged showing him dressed like a firefighter, he tried to get the images removed from social media without success.

Given the need for physical distancing, Williamson County Commissioners Court meetings are taking place remotely at 9:3o a.m. every Tuesday. Residents wanting to address the court still have to sign up at the main Williamson County Courthouse, 710 S. Main St., in Georgetown, Texas.

Screen shot of reimbursement form from Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell.

Screenshot of itemized list from Gravell’s reimbursement request.

Screenshot of itemized list from Gravell’s reimbursement request.

Screenshot of itemized list from Gravell’s reimbursement request.

Screenshot of itemized list from Gravell’s reimbursement request.

This article originally appeared on the Round Rock Patch

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