WORTHINGTON — Nobles County commissioners spent about an hour Wednesday afternoon in a work session to discuss distribution of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act dollars to small businesses and farms impacted by COVID-19.
While no official action could be taken during the meeting, the consensus following their discussion pointed to a potential dollar-for-dollar match to cities, who would then distribute the funds in a yet-to-be-determined process. A firm decision on the distribution could come as soon as Tuesday, when commissioners meet in regular session, or on Thursday, during a joint noon meeting of city and county leaders.
The county received $2.7 million in aid, which included some funds dedicated for cities and townships with populations of 200 or fewer residents. Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson said the county spent about $100,000 on COVID response thus far. Two-thirds of that was to pay for motels for people who tested positive for the novel coronavirus but could not isolate in their own home. Other expenses included the purchase of personal protective equipment — masks, face shields gowns, etc.
Deputy Nobles County Administrator and Emergency Management Director Bruce Heitkamp said some of the CARES Act funds should be set aside for contingencies. Now four months into COVID, he said the county could be dealing with virus-related expenses for another six months or more, or until a vaccine is developed.
With the city of Worthington's current intent to allocate $700,000 of its $1,017,847 in CARES Act funds to a small business economic support grant program, Commissioner Justin Ahlers suggested a 1:1 match with cities and townships who set aside funds for small business economic recovery. This way, the county dollars are distributed fairly and will reach the businesses most impacted by COVID. It would also leave the county with about $800,000 in contingency funds.
Worthington City Administrator Steve Robinson, invited to Wednesday’s work session, said collaborating with the county on a single program for small businesses just makes sense.
“If the county’s going to go in the same direction, we don’t want to have a competing program with the county,” Robinson said. “We could possibly pool our programs into one with one administrative review process.”
Robinson envisioned other small cities in the county duplicating the business aid program being developed by the city of Worthington. He suggested the city may set aside 3% of its money to cover staff time, marketing, interpreters and other expenses related to reaching businesses and assisting them in the process of getting CARES Act funds. Administration is an eligible use of the money, noted Johnson.
Commissioner Matt Widboom said he’d like to see the money get into the hands of the small businesses as soon as possible.
“I’d much rather we get the money working because it’s doing no good in our account,” Widboom said.
Commissioner Donald Linssen, meanwhile, said the aid needed to first reach the businesses that had to be closed for an extended period of time.
“My concern is the small businesses that got shuttered — those are the businesses that need to be taken care of first,” Linssen said. “Those businesses were hurt the most.”
Heitkamp said the county can’t forget about the livestock producers who had to euthanize animals or experienced higher trucking costs because animals had to be transported longer distances to market.
Commissioners directed administrative staff to compile more information and possible options to consider at Tuesday’s board meeting.