Officials have a short window to distribute CARES Act money to residents, families and businesses hit hard by COVID-19

by Jim Boyle

Editor

Sherburne County is moving quickly to give residents and businesses who could be helped by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding.

The county received its $11,667,880 allotment on July 7, and officials have wasted no time in meeting, brainstorming, and putting together requests and proposals. It even assembled resolutions that were unanimously approved by the Sherburne County Board of Commissioners at its July 14 meeting to provide a business relief fund program and help to residents impacted by COVID-19.

County Board Chairman Felix Schmiesing said during the discussion of assistance for individuals, families and businesses it’s important to get the money out and into people’s hands before the window of opportunity passes.

Dan Weber, the assistant county administrator, said Sherburne County was one of the first counties to get the allocation. He said cities within Sherburne County will receive another $3.5 million and townships within the county will receive another $2.35 million. County officials will meet July 22 with townships to go over opportunities and challenges.

The CARES Act requires that the payments from the Coronavirus Relief Fund only be used to cover expenses that:

– Are necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID–19).

– Were not accounted for in the budget most recently approved as of March 27 (the date of enactment of the CARES Act) for the state or government.

– Were incurred during the period that begins on March 1, 2020, and ends on Dec. 1, 2020.

Staff has developed a draft Small Business Relief Fund to help out local businesses that have been affected by COVID-19. Commissioners dropped the word “small” off the title of the program to avoid having any business not consider it, thinking they were too large to qualify.

CARES Act funding will become a regular topic at County Board meetings, and the goal on July 14 was to get a couple of programs up and running before its next meeting on Aug. 4.

Twenty percent of the $11.7 million, or $2.3 million, has been set aside for the business relief fund program. It will offer businesses, with at least two employees but less than 50, grant opportunities up to $30,000 to pay for things like rent or a mortgage, payroll for current employees, working capital or operating costs such as inventory and utility payments.

Property taxes, however, will not an eligible expense.

Commissioners eliminated a revenue threshold in the belief that the other limits were sufficient.

Applications will be accepted between late July (once the program is up and running on the county’s website) and Aug. 31.

Businesses that have tapped other state and federal programs for relief may not qualify.

“We want it up and running by July 27,” Weber said, noting a press release would announce the availability of the program.

Businesses can also go to their city or township, but not for the same expenses.

Amanda Larson, the Health and Human Services director, explained the second program that will provide emergency assistance for qualified expenses for some Sherburne County residents who meet income requirements.

“One of the most critical needs is to get assistance out to individuals and families who need this,” Larson said.

One aspect of the program is for adults, and another is for families. There are similar programs already in place that are more restrictive, but these will be tied to impacts from COVID-19.

The existing program for adults will run out in three  months, and the one for families usually offers more assistance than the county has a need for under normal circumstances.

In the latest round of the family program, 65 families were approved and 74 were denied.

As for the adult program, 51 individuals were approved and 81 were denied.

Under the CARES Act program, recipients could be eligible for up to $2,000 unless a supervisor approves a greater amount.

“When moratorium (on evictions) lifts, the floodgates will open, we believe,” Larson said. “If folks are 3-4 months behind, they will be in a pickle.”

Approved expenses will be things like appliances, maintenance, repairs, air conditioner and furnace replacements as well as utility shut offs, transportation to include car repairs or getting current on car payments. Unexpected funeral expenses due to a COVID-19 related death would also qualify.

Individuals making up to 300% above the poverty line could qualify.

“So that’s a person making $38,000, or a family of four making $78,000,” Larson said. “This really addresses the working poor.”

County Commissioner Lisa Fobbe said $2,000 doesn’t seem like a lot.

Larson said the number selected was in between the $817 individuals are normally able to qualify for and the $2,500 families are normally able to qualify for. Supervisors will have the authority to approve up to $2,500.

Commissioner Tim Dolan said to make sure the county is diligent when handling the requests, and make sure all of the guidelines are followed so the county avoids risk.

Larson said the funds will only be for individuals and families clearly impacted by COVID-19 and there will only be a four-month window.

“I understand the urgency,” Dolan said. “We got to be quick but diligent.”

Fobbe said the quick turnaround has been a topic for a blue ribbon committee she is serving on with the Association of Minnesota Counties.

“Let me know if I can be an advocate for different guidelines,” Fobbe said, noting there’s a real concern that the timelines are not realistic.

“Everything we do is preparing for the surge we anticipate in the fall when the ... moratorium ends,” Larson said.

Sherburne County Administrator Bruce Messelt said the plan is to run all these programs through the board as they move along.

“It will require deep dives on where we’re at,” Messelt said. “This is a jump-start.”

Schmiesing said the federal government is working on the next wave, and what’s happening now doesn’t make a lot of sense in how it’s flowing.

It was suggested the second wave of help may not be needed if cities, counties and states are given the time they need to dispense the CARES Act funds.

A relief fund is also being developed for nonprofits, which have als been hit hard. One that has been on the county’s radar and officials have written the state about is Options in Big Lake.

The county also discussed in a work session pulling off two or three broadband projects to help with connectivity across the county. One risk is if they don’t get the projects completed within a certain time frame, the county could be on the hook.

Officials have identified a but-for test to ask themselves if not for the pandemic, would they move forward with such broadband projects. Staff’s answer was yes, and so was the board’s based on a work session discussion after the July 14 meeting.

It was noted that an internal review process has been established to review CARES Act requests that includes risk assessment. Those at the table are from the sheriff’s office, emergency services, the county attorney’s office, the auditor/treasurer’s office and administration.

It will meet each Wednesday while CARES Act funds are being distributed.

This is also the avenue for departmental requests for CARES funds that will be sent first to the county administration through a centralized form.

“Each request will be reviewed by the committee and recommendations will be made to the county board for final approval,” Weber said.

The county is working with a broadband provider who has a few plats in Clear Lake Township and Becker Township that are shovel ready that they have never been able to make the numbers work. There’s a $310,000 gap — $130,000 on one and $180,000 on the other.)

It would serve 185 residences, and so far the county has received 29 letters of support from people who are either not able to work from home and/or have children who could not do distance learning from home.”

The risk for the county is they would be on the hook if the pandemic is over by Dec. 1.

“They would need to be functioning by Dec. 1,” Weber said, noting the funding needed is truly a gap and the firm is not asking the county to fund the projects completely.

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