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Businesses in Nicollet County with at least one employee, and no more than 20, could be eligible for a COVID-related grant through Nicollet County, if it goes ahead with a proposed business assistance program, funded by CARES Act dollars. (Herald file photo)

Nicollet County knows it has $4.1 million in federal CARES Act funding to spend in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. What it doesn’t know is how exactly those dollars should be spent.

The state of Minnesota recently distributed its dollars to counties, cities and townships, but it did not give specific direction on how those dollars should be spent. The dollars are not meant to replace revenue and they should be used only for expenses related to the pandemic. Also costs that the dollars go toward should be incurred by Dec. 1, so the money can’t be saved. Other than those basic rules, the entities seemingly have a lot of discretion in how to spend.

So while Nicollet County staff and elected officials have so far been clear that they want to use a significant sum on reimbursing county expenses (and therefore saving property tax dollars), they might still have a couple million leftover to distribute. The first priority for those dollars would be community-benefiting programs, like food shelves and eviction assistance.

But still, there may be dollars available for businesses, and that’s when things get more complicated.

The county estimates that over $2 million will go toward reimbursing itself for pandemic costs, including Public Health response, payroll and benefits, facility disinfection, technology, increased solid waste costs and unemployment costs. Staff then proposes sending sums, anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000, to programs like the St. Peter Food Shelf, eviction assistance (helping people stay in residences), childcare assistance, community partner assistance, health and safety grants, livestock assistance, and Fair Board and Historical Society assistance. Staff also proposes sending $300,000 to local school districts to help with distance learning and technology costs.

Even after all of that, another $1 million may be left, which could be distributed to businesses through grants. But what businesses should qualify? Who should be ruled out? What should the maximum grant be? How much documentation would be required? There are a number of questions surrounding any business grant program, the most significant of which involve equity.

What staff proposed in a July 21 discussion with the Board of Commissioners was a program with $5,000 maximum grants. Only businesses with at least one employee and less than 20 employees would qualify, and they cannot be home-based. The businesses would have to demonstrate adverse impact from the pandemic. County Administrator Ryan Krosch indicated he would like to see some kind of documentation from the businesses applying, but he’d also like to keep the process simple and easy to utilize.

Krosch said Nicollet County’s program was inspired by Ramsey County, which already implemented a business assistance program in April. He also noted the Nicollet County program would be run by in-house county staff, as it would be “more efficient to do it in house.”

The biggest problem for staff and elected officials was leaving certain businesses out. Krosch noted there are 673 known businesses in the county, and 555 have 20 employees or less. However, the number of eligible businesses is further reduced when including the “at least one employee” and “not home-based” rules.

Commissioner Marie Drantell noted that those rules would leave out home-based daycares, who she knows are struggling. Commissioner John Luepke agreed that those rules might not be fair: “I don’t know; we might be walking on fire here.”

Krosch said the reason for the “at least one employee” and “not home-based” rules was to exclude businesses where someone only needs to work at home from their computer. He noted those businesses would be far less likely to be negatively impacted by the pandemic.

Another concern of Drantell’s was businesses that already have applied for some kind of city, state or federal assistance, specifically forgivable loans: “There has been some chatter that previous (Paycheck Protection Program) loans or other loans that were forgivable may no longer be forgivable if you take grant money from another entity.”

She added, “I think we need to be cognizant that this all can change completely tomorrow,” she said.

With feedback from the commissioners, Krosch said he and staff would continue fine tuning the plan, and staff intends to bring something back to the board in August.

Reach Editor Philip Weyhe at 507-931-8567 or follow him on Twitter @EditorPhilipWeyhe. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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