The cities of Backus and Longville joined forces to qualify for a Small Cities Grant program that could assist businesses and homeowners in improving their properties, but time is running out to apply.

Projects must be done and paid for before the end of December, and paperwork can take several months to complete.

"One of the quickest ones we ever did was in five months," said Harry Entwistle, weatherization director for Bi-County Community Action Program. "People were proactive about getting their paperwork in. Our binders are two or three inches thick with all the documents we need to collect."

The program aims to split 10 residential and 10 commercial loans evenly between the two communities.

"Right now we are out to bid for six residentials," Entwistle said. "We have, right now, five commercial we are working on to go out to bid."

Of those residential locations, five are in Backus.

The grant is one way that property owners can pay for roofing, doors, windows, foundations, furnaces, electrical work, lead paint removal, handicap accessibility and many other projects. The grants are actually deferred loans that can pay themselves off.

"It's a seven-year deferred loan for 0 percent interest," Entwistle said. "If the home is sold or changes owners at that time, the amount needs to be paid back to the city of Longville or Backus according to whatever city they are in. The loans are forgiven one-seventh per year. After seven years the building is free and clear and there is no payback on anything."

Loans can be up to $25,000. Homeowners qualify for different amounts and different matching percentages depending on income. Commercial property owners have no income limits and must match the loans equally.

According to discussion at the Backus City Council meeting in April, there have been some applicants turned down for grants. It seems that the main reasons for turn-downs include the condition of the home, income of the applicant and safety of contractors. Similar restrictions were applied when Pine River used a similar program. Some issues could be avoided by abatements, but some required other resolutions.

In some cases, homeowners do prep work before Entwistle's workers come in to do the rest. Usually this includes removal of a health hazard.

"Typically we just have them clean it themselves or with someone," Entwistle said. "The issue is, I cannot put my staff or contractors in a house that will be a hazard to their health."

In other cases, if a home cannot be brought up to "standard" condition with the $25,000 loan, then a loan may be denied. This might be the case if floors are dry rotted or there are major structural issues.

In addition, because all work must be bid, work that has already been done cannot be reimbursed, and residential properties must be occupied by their owners.

Pine River's own small cities loan projects paid out $399,600 to five commercial property owners and 14 residential property owners, according to city clerk Wanda Mongan.

The project required very little work on behalf of the city.

"At first I didn't know what it was going to involve," Mongan said. "I thought it would be very time consuming. The contractors brought the bills in to me, I sent them to the gentleman in St. Cloud. They would cut a check to the city and the city would pay the contractor. ... I think everyone that had that felt good about the work that was done."

Backus residents interested in applying for the loan project can contact Entwistle at 218-751-4631 or 800-332-7161.