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Steele County will receive another batch of funding to allocate to businesses who have been impacted by Gov. Tim Walz's latest round of business shutdowns. (File photo/southernminn.com)

Steele County officials expect to receive $732,425 from the state to dole out to businesses impacted by the latest round of business shutdowns.

The county hasn’t yet received the funding, which will be allocated from the Legislature’s relief bill passed last week. The relief bill came after Gov. Tim Walz in November put a “pause” on restaurants, bars and gyms for four weeks, then extended it, to curb rising COVID-19 cases in Minnesota. The Steele County Board on Tuesday authorized the county administrator and Coronavirus Relief Fund Committee to set the application process and award the grants. The funding has to be distributed by March 15.

While setting the 2021 county fees Tuesday, Commissioner Greg Krueger wasn’t successful in convincing the board to cut the $2,500 liquor license fee in half for 2021, which would have impacted one event center in Steele County that has a full liquor license. The county’s other liquor licenses comes with fees that are set at $20, $50 or $200.

County Auditor Laura Ihrke pointed out that part of the liquor license fee goes to the state and in the past, the county has abated the cost for the months a facility wasn’t able to use the liquor license. The other commissioners agreed that abatement may be a way to help the event facility and noted that businesses qualify for federal COVID-19 relief money that could offset some of the financial implications of the shutdown.

“The COVID relief funds were for lost revenues basically. To me, this is not lost revenue. This is an expense that was incurred and then the state took their right to be open,” Krueger said.

The Steele County Board also wrapped up its spending of the federal COVID-19 funding on Tuesday. It spent all of the $4.48 million allocated to it from the Coronavirus Relief Fund and the $65,250 in CRF dollars that was unused by the cities and townships in Steele County, according to the final expenditures report the board approved Tuesday.

The county spent $2.4 million, more than half of the funding, on payroll related to the pandemic for public health, public safety and human services employees. The county also spent $212,116 on payroll for other employees whose work was related to the pandemic, according to the report.

It spent $73,868 on personal protective equipment and $533,745 on public health actions taken in response to the pandemic, including a disinfection robot, radios and a Sheriff’s Office truck and trailer for emergency response, according to the report.

Nearly $615,000 went toward improving the county’s telework capabilities, including purchasing laptops, headsets, scanners, digital software, conferencing video displays and equipment, remote workstations and security upgrades, according to the report.

The county spent 15% of the funds, or $641,661, on grants for businesses and nonprofits impacted by the shutdown during the pandemic this year, as well as fees for advertising the grants. The county spent $33,847 on administrative expenses, including for professional consulting services related to the business grants, according to the report.

The county reportedly provided $13,577 to the Steele County Free Fair as a payroll reimbursement and $29,590 to the Blooming Prairie school district to purchase electronic equipment needed for distance learning.

The county board also extended until March 31, 2021 the emergency sick leave option for county employees that was first created by the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act in April. The federal provision is set to expire on Dec. 31 and Congress hasn’t extended it. The act provides 80 hours of paid emergency sick leave to employees due to COVID-19 illness, quarantine, to care for household members who are ill with COVID-19 or to care for children whose school or childcare provider is closed due to COVID-19.

So far, 54 county employees have used emergency sick leave for a total of 3,489 hours.

The county board didn’t extend the emergency Family Medical Leave that provided up to 12 weeks of leave for employees who were required to care for their children because their school or childcare provider was closed and they were unable to remotely work. Three county employees have used that leave for a total of 112 hours.

In other news, the county commissioners declined Tuesday to give themselves a raise in 2021. However, several commissioners said they’d like to discuss a cost of living adjustment for the commissioner salary. Commissioner James Brady said he would like to see a 2% increase to the salary and Krueger suggested that it would be appropriate to discuss that when they work on the budget.

The county commissioner salary is $22,433 per year and the per diem is $70 per day.

Reach Associate Editor Lisa Kaczke at 507-444-2371. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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