The Teton County Commissioners in a special meeting on Monday approved a resolution declaring a public health emergency in the county in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and, starting Tuesday, closed all county offices to the public until midnight on April 7.

Commissioners Jim Hodgskiss, Dick Snellman and Joe Dellwo consulted with Teton County Health Department Director Melissa Moyer who recommended that county buildings be closed to the public and that department heads be authorized to reduce staff in their offices, allow employees to work from home and to respond to requests for service from the public by telephone, fax, mail, email or curbside pickup.

The commissioners said that the closure will be reevaluated on April 7 and could be extended.

Moyer said Teton County is still very much in a preventative pose as the county has yet to have one diagnosed case of COVID-19. 

The commissioners said all employees who are sent home will be paid whether they can work from home or not. “No offices closure are anticipated at this time and all services will continue to be provided,” the commissioners wrote in their notice to department heads. “As this health emergency has a lot of unknown variables, we are doing the best we can to ensure the safety of our employees and still be able to service the public.”

They said members of the public can access county services by calling the county office that they need help from. Then, they said, staff in those offices can arrange to email or mail documents to customers, or they can deliver them to the doors of their buildings for customers to pick up.

Some county offices are mandated by law to remain staffed, including the Clerk and Recorder/elections, Treasurer, Clerk of Court, County Attorney, Justice Court, the Sheriff’s Office, firefighters and emergency medical responders.

            Others, including the Montana State University Extension Office, the county planner and the Weed Department, for example, are not considered “essential” and may be able to close their offices and work remotely.

            The joint city-county libraries in Choteau, Fairfield and Dutton were already closed to the public though patrons can call in during regular hours to request a book and then pick the book up at the library’s front door.

The emergency resolution says that the county has begun incurring costs in March related to the “local health services” preparing for the pandemic and “whereas the county will commit all available resources and will take all possible action to combat and to alleviate the situation, local resources will not be adequate to cope with the situation.”

Expenditures for the county’s response to the pandemic may be beyond the financial capability of the county, the resolution says, so the commissioners, by declaring an emergency will be able to impose a new two-mill property tax on property outside the Choteau, Fairfield and Dutton municipalities to help fund the county’s COVID-19 response. The emergency declaration may open the county up for additional federal and state emergency funding measures as the pandemic progresses.

At Monday’s meeting, the commissioners said that paying employees on administrative leave or working from home will not affect the budget because those wages and benefits were already budgeted for each department.