Three votes by the Crow Wing County Board Tuesday, Feb. 24, finalized distribution of the remaining state-appropriated funds intended to ease hardship experienced by businesses and nonprofits during the pandemic.
In total, grant applications from 281 businesses and nonprofit organizations in the county received approval, gaining access to $1.12 million sent to Crow Wing by the Minnesota Legislature as part of a broader relief package. Businesses or nonprofit organizations with a physical location in Crow Wing County and fewer than 50 employees were eligible to request up to $10,000 to cover expenses related to the pandemic incurred between March 1, 2020, through the end of the application period, which was Jan. 12.
In anticipation of the funding, the county board in December approved a framework for how it intended to distribute the dollars. This framework included prioritizing applicants not ordered closed by one of Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders — a group not eligible for funds from an earlier county-administered grant program supported by money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
Those ordered closed who did not apply as part of the federal program received second priority. The board also agreed to accept applications from beneficiaries of the first grant program, although grants would be smaller for these applicants with the remaining funds divided evenly.
After previously approving 84 applications from those in the first and second priority groups in January, commissioners Tuesday unanimously approved 188 repeat applications. They also approved eight applications from those in the second priority group previously set aside for further verification. A third action saw the board voting 4-1 to overturn a grant denial in response to an appeal by National Boxer Rescue, a Brainerd-based dog rescue organization.
Crow Wing County received 359 applications requesting about $3.3 million, triple the amount available from the Legislature. A committee including commissioners Steve Barrows and Doug Houge, along with Tyler Glynn, executive director of the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp., evaluated applications to weed out those that did not qualify.
Given the demand, they also screened out some other applications, explained County Administrator Tim Houle Wednesday, in an effort to target those most in need while remaining consistent with earlier practice. Among the rejected applicants were home construction businesses, service organizations, churches identifying only ministry-related expenses, festivals, sole proprietors of arts and crafts, landlords and service professionals, such as lawyers and accountants.
Some retail location applicants, such as convenience stores, saw grant amounts reduced to cover only direct expenses related to COVID-19. Examples included personal protective equipment, sanitation supplies, Plexiglas or other changes made as a result of the pandemic.
Houle said with more applications than funds, two different approaches were possible: fund everyone equally with grants much smaller than the maximum $10,000, or attempt to get dollars into the hands of those most in need. The county opted for the latter.
“Our efforts here have been trying — however badly we might not have hit the mark — but we’re trying to hit the mark of the greatest unmet need remaining in our community. So when we had limited funds and too many applications, that’s the effort we engaged in,” Houle said. “I know that people will have different opinions about what those greatest unmet needs are. If anybody has information about remaining unmet needs in the community, I would be very interested to hear.”
Houle said for many of those whose applications were denied, he hopes the county can assist in the future if additional funding becomes available. Landlords in particular do not appear to be receiving adequate help through existing housing assistance programs, he said. Event centers of all sizes in the county would be another targeted group Houle said the county may look toward if more dollars are distributed for relief.
Commissioners considered an appeal Tuesday from National Boxer Rescue denied earlier in the process. Cheryl Strand Petersen sent commissioners a lengthy narrative of the woes the pandemic wrought for her home-based dog rescue while requesting reconsideration.
Strand Petersen said a combination of dried-up monetary and in-kind donations, travel restrictions, impacts on veterinary offices and volunteers no longer able to assist with the organization’s mission made 2020 a very difficult year for her and the rescued pets.
“In a sentence, yes we were greatly affected negatively, financially, by Covid-19 since March 2020,” she wrote. “We ended up spending much more money and taking in far fewer rescues. Just the opposite of what we should have been doing. Completely different than the year before. Yes there were times we discussed closing down but you don’t have a choice when real lives are dependent on you.
“ … We’d sure like to get back on track. This grant we have requested will help us get there just a little bit faster.”
Houle told commissioners Tuesday the home-based aspect of Strand Petersen’s business was what initially led to denial. These present a challenge in distinguishing home expenses versus business expenses, he noted.
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen pointed out the board previously approved a federally funded grant for the Heartland Animal Rescue Team animal shelter, a similar organization. Commissioner Bill Brekken asked Houle whether other nonprofits were previously funded based on lost revenue as criteria.
“What I would argue is almost all of this is about loss of revenue,” Houle responded. “The loss of the revenue makes it so you can’t pay the expenses. In the CARES rounds, they did not allow us to count loss of revenue. In this particular case, we could. The difficulty of counting lost revenue is it’s the absence of something that might have happened. And so, documenting lost revenue is very difficult.”
Houle said if the board agreed to offer a grant to the organization, receipts and other financial documentation would be evaluated as in other cases.
Franzen made a motion in favor of offering a grant to the National Boxer Rescue, seconded by Commissioner Paul Koering. All voted in favor except Brekken.
With this additional $10,000 grant awarded, the amount available for 188 repeat applicants dropped by $54.35 to $2,266.69 each.