After working out a few remaining details at a Tuesday Board of Commissioners meeting, Rice County released application forms for its latest round of business assistance on Friday. The county received about $1.3 million to distribute.

This latest round of business assistance differs from prior rounds in that these dollars are not tied to the federal CARES Act. While CARES Act dollars were subject to strict restrictions on how they could be allocated and used, the state-funded stimulus offers much more flexibility.

Under state guidelines, all dollars in the new program must be awarded by March 15 and spent by April 1. In Rice County, applications will first be reviewed Jan. 29 and subsequently afterward on a rolling basis thereafter until the March 15 deadline or all funds are expended.

Beyond that, counties are given leeway to set up program guidelines, and the flexibility extends to businesses as well. So long as it’s approved by the county, businesses can use those dollars for a wide variety of uses including payroll, property taxes and insurance costs.

Unlike Steele County, Rice County decided to limit the amount any single business can request with $10,000 the maximum available. Depending on the funds available and determination of need, businesses could receive less than that — or nothing at all.

If the need arises, the county could supplement the program with dollars of its own. During the county budget discussion, board members discussed setting aside some dollars for a county funded assistance program, though County Administrator Sara Folsted declined to say how much money could be available for one.

The county board will have the final say on all applications, and Folsted believes there’s a strong possibility that applications could exceed available funds. Although the county hasn’t laid out a specific set of criteria for determining prioritization, state guidelines offer some suggestions.

In addition to need, Board Chair Jeff Docken said that priority would go to those businesses that “fell through the cracks” and have failed to receive any business aid so far along with those hit particularly hard by the governor’s executive orders closing businesses and/or limiting their hours.

“We have some leeway as far as judgement goes, but we intend to be fair,” he said.

Even before the application fund was released, Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson said that many businesses reached out to the chamber to inquire about the program.

With the money so badly needed, Johnson said he’s grateful that Rice County took the time to put together a fair and equitable program designed to have maximum economic impact.

“We’re glad that Rice County has put a lot of thought into this,” he said. “It’s great to see them make sure they have enough to go around, as much as is possible.”

Funding for the program comes from the $216 million stimulus package passed by the Minnesota Legislature at the end of last year, following a favorable budget forecast that showed more funds available that previously anticipated.

Approximately $114 million of that funding was designated for each of Minnesota’s 87 counties to set up their own business and nonprofit assistance programs. Dollars were allocated on a per-capita basis, with a minimum amount of $256,250 per county.

Bars, restaurants and other businesses that provide on-site food and beverages were also given direct payments of $10,000 to $45,000, depending on the number of employees. About $88 million was allocated for that program, and an additional $14 million went to convention centers and theaters.

According to a Thursday press release from Gov. Tim Walz’s office, $67.3 million of that $88 million in assistance to bars, restaurants and other businesses selling on-site food and beverages has been issued to 3,891 eligible businesses across the state by the Minnesota Department of Revenue.

“This relief comes at a crucial time for our businesses who continue to make enormous sacrifices for the health and safety of Minnesotans,” said Gov. Walz in the release. “This is a critical lifeline for those businesses and for the Minnesotans whose livelihoods depend on them.”

The Department of Revenue used sales tax filings to come up with the list of businesses eligible for assistance, which is not public because private tax data was used to compile it.

Businesses which believe they are eligible for the aid but were left out can contact the Department between Jan. 19 and Feb. 5, with additional assistance to such businesses sent out after that.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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