by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona County is spending a big chunk of its $6.2-million coronavirus aid package on rural internet expansion and help for small businesses, individuals in need, and a range of nonprofits. The new, local programs offering assistance for housing, food, and transportation are now accepting applications.
Winona County got a total of $6.2 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The county plans to spend $3 million of that on its own expenses — mostly wages for public health and public safety staff. Because those wages were already funded in this year’s budget, that will have the effect of increasing the county’s reserves by around $3 million — money that could possibly be used to lower next year’s taxes. County leaders plan to share the other $3.2 million with the community, and last week, the County Board allocated over $2.2 million to a variety of aid programs, while plans for the remaining roughly $1 million are still in the works.
An initial proposal for how to spend the CARES money was heavy on aid for businesses and very light on aid for people in need. At the urging of County Board member Marie Kovecsi, county staff amended their plans to include more help for individual citizens.
A $982,000 rural broadband expansion project is the biggest single program the County Board approved. The county plans to give HBC 100-percent of the money needed to expand HBC fiberoptic cables to four different rural areas that currently lack high-speed internet: a stretch of Highway 74 south of St. Charles, a segment of Highway 14 near The Arches, a stretch of County Road 25 north of Rollingstone, and a piece of County Road 7 near Pickwick Road. Plus, a tower that broadcasts moderately fast internet would be erected near Nodine. The project would bring high-speed internet to 234 homes and 21 businesses. According to the county plan, HBC would invest $100,000 of its own money to set the stage for further expansions in the future. State cost-share grants that require internet companies to put down much more of their own money have helped make similar expansions possible in the past, but according to county administrator Ken Fritz, these areas wouldn’t be economically feasible for HBC to reach through those more costly state programs. Fritz added that the project will help rural families with school-age children to participate in distance learning. “Next to electricity and water, I think everyone needs internet,” County Board member Marcia Ward said.
The next biggest program is $750,000 for housing assistance. The program is being run by the Southeastern Minnesota Multi-County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (SEMMCHRA), and it offers up to $5,000 grants to Winona County residents who are behind on rent, mortgage, or utility payments due to COVID-19. Residents earning up to 115-percent of the state median income (roughly $106,000 for a family of three or more) are eligible. To receive funding, participants must have been up-to-date on their bills at the start of the pandemic in March.
The County Board is also planning on three different programs for local businesses: one run by SEMMCHRA, one run by Winona Volunteer Services (WVS), and one program still in planning stages that may be run by the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce.
The SEMMCHRA program is just for businesses. The County Board gave it $250,000 in funding, and it offers up to $10,000 grants to small businesses located in Winona County. Businesses, including farms, with under 25 employees and under $1 million in annual revenue are eligible. Self-employed entrepreneurs and farmers are ineligible — a point Ward and County Board member Chris Meyer criticized but allowed to stand. “We’ve got this money, we have to help as many people, bodies, and families,” Ward said. Fritz said it would be more difficult to verify self-employed business owner’s income, and he added the county is considering a separate program to help farmers who had to cull animals due to COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants.
The county granted another $125,000 to WVS for grants of up to $2,000 available to both individuals or businesses based on need. The WVS program could be used to help individuals afford food, rent, transportation, and other expenses. County plans included fewer details for this program, but mentioned that WVS would make grants to individuals not served by other assistance programs or unemployment.
Winona Health foot the bill for many uninsured patients’ COVID-19 tests, and the County Board approved $125,000 to help the clinic cover those costs, one of the suggested uses of the CARES Act funds.
A number of other proposed uses of the money are slated to come before the County Board for approval this month. Because the money has to be spent by November 30, county staff said there’s a narrow window to set up programs and distribute the money. Fritz pushed for the County Board to give the nod to more programs, the details of which had yet to be worked out, but Meyer, Kovecsi, and County Board member Greg Olson insisted they wanted to know how the money would be spent before they approved allocations. “I want this to move forward, but I want to hear about plans as they develop,” Meyer said. “Haste makes waste,” Olson stated.
The city of Winona has yet to decide how to spend its $2-million CARES Act allocation. The easy way would be just to spend it all on police and fire, city manager Steve Sarvi said. However, he felt it made sense to wait and see where the biggest needs are. There is still time to do that and distribute money accordingly before the November 30 deadline, he said.
To apply for housing assistance from SEMMCHRA, visit www.semmchra.org/covid-19-emergency-assistance-for-small-businesses/.
To apply for WVS' assistance program, visit www.winonavs.org/care-grant-application/.
To apply for business aid from SEMMCHRA, visit www.semmchra.org/covid-19-emergency-assistance-for-small-businesses/.