by CHRIS ROGERS
Local businesses are getting the largest single chunk of Winona County’s $6.2-million pot of federal pandemic aid. There is still plenty of assistance available for individuals and families struggling to pay bills.
So far, the County Board has allocated $1.25 million in grants to local businesses. Nearly all of that money has already been paid out, and the County Board will vote on making another $500,000 available to businesses later this month for a total of $1.75 million.
Some $875,000 in aid for families and individuals is moving slowly, with less than $70,000 distributed so far. Nonprofits administering those programs say they are not seeing huge volumes of needy people seeking help — at least not yet. Winona County Administrator Ken Fritz noted one aid program for individuals has tighter restrictions on how the money may be used compared to aid for businesses.
Business grants going like hot cakes
Over several weeks, the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce gave out nearly 150 grants to local businesses hurt by the pandemic — up to $10,000 each — and will soon pay out all $1 million of CARES Act funding the county allocated to it for that purpose, chamber president Christie Ransom said.
“We’re continually getting more applications — daily actually,” Ransom stated. On October 13, Winona County Administrator Ken Fritz said he will recommend the County Board allocate another $500,000 to the chamber-run grant program.
Separately, the county allocated $250,000 to Southeast Minnesota Multi-county Housing and Redevelopment Authority (SEMMCHRA) for a nearly identical program offering businesses grants of up to $10,000. SEMMCHRA has given out $155,000 so far.
Unlike many other COVID aid programs — which offered loans businesses would eventually have to repay — these programs give money to local companies with documented losses from the pandemic. “Literally this is free money,” SEMMCHRA Executive Director Buffy Beranek explained. “It’s true. We just need you to apply. Let’s keep the money in Southeast Minnesota and help our small businesses as much as possible.”
“I can tell you right now that we have gotten thank you cards. We’ve gotten emails. We’ve had people almost in tears they were so thankful,” Ransom stated. “It was a reprieve when they needed it the most. And while it may be a small part of what they lost in this pandemic, it can get them to a place where they can keep their doors open.”
Nearly a quarter of all applications came from restaurants and bars, Ransom reported, with professional services and health-related small businesses making up sizable chunks.
The grants were given out on a first-come, first-served basis to qualifying businesses. Ransom said the chamber used its email lists, social media, and direct outreach to spread the word. To apply, visit www.winonachamber.com/page/3066/eform/825.
The chamber and SEMMCHRA crosscheck applications so that businesses don’t improperly “double dip” from both programs, but businesses with large enough losses may apply for both. Business owners are required to submit financial statements documenting that they have lost revenue due to the pandemic, and they must to swear they haven’t received other aid — such as state grants or Paycheck Protection Program money — for the same expenses they’re claiming in applying for county funding.
Nonprofits: Less demand for individual aid
Winona County allocated $750,000 to SEMMCHRA to help people financially hurt by the pandemic with housing costs, including rent, mortgage, mobile home fees, and utilities by providing grants of up to $5,000 each. The county gave Winona Volunteer Services (WVS) another $125,000 to help families and individuals, who have suffered economically because of COVID, with grants of up to $2,000 each for household expenses.
WVS Client Services Coordinator Kay Peterson said her organization has approved 36 grants totaling $47,000. Beranek said SEMMCHRA has given out $16,000.
In addition to the individual aid, Kay said WVS is using that pot of money to fund a separate endeavor: A county contract to house homeless people in local hotels during the pandemic. WVS spent $17,000 on that lodging in two months alone. Bottomline: WVS’s grant pool is not quite half gone, with tens of thousands of dollars still available.
SEMMCHRA still has over $700,000 available.
To apply, visit www.winonavs.org and www.semmchra.org.
Beranek and Peterson said that, so far, they have not seen an overwhelming demand for assistance. “Our food shelf is going strong, but fortunately we’re not seeing wild numbers,” Peterson stated. “I don’t have a sense that a lot of people are struggling with things and not asking, at least not yet,” she added.
Are some people behind on rent, but not seeking help yet because of the moratorium on evictions? “Our collections are as good if not better than prior to COVID,” Beranek said of SEMMCHRA-owned apartments. “We are just not seeing it, and I honestly truly believe it’s because we’re getting additional money coming in from the federal government. They’ve got that additional income coming in; they’re able to make those payments.”
Some of those that do apply don’t meet the requirements, Beranek and Peterson stated. “Besides the 36 households we’ve been able to help, there’s probably double that have applied,” Peterson said. “But some of the apps are not related to COVID, so they’re not able to prove a COVID connection … Sometimes I ask for proof, and then I don’t hear back. So there’s different reasons.”
Applicants must submit bank statements and provide some kind of documentation that they lost income or had greater expenses due to the pandemic, such as note from an employer who laid them off or a doctor’s note that they missed work due to COVID, Beranek explained. People who were in trouble before COVID don’t qualify.
Contrasting the housing assistance and business grants, Fritz said, “They have restrictions that are a lot tighter for housing. It’s really limited to housing costs.”
Beranek said of SEMMCHRA’s approach to making sure the need for housing grants is fully documented, “We have to make sure all the I’s are dotted, all the T’s are crossed. We will not do anything to jeopardize our federal funding or the county’s federal funding.”
While there aren’t overwhelming needs now, Beranek expressed concerns about the need local people could face if federal stimulus programs and enhanced unemployment benefits are not renewed. “What if the $300 [in added unemployment] goes away and there’s nothing?” she asked. “That’s the cliff that I think we all need to be worried about, concerned about, and ready to provide assistance … I think we will see a large uptick when that happens, if that happens. I hope it doesn’t.”
In payment for running these programs, the chamber, SEMMCHRA, and WVS will get an administrative fee equal to 15 percent of the funds they distribute. That would be up $150,000 for SEMMCHRA, $18,750 for WVS, and potentially up to $225,000 for the chamber. Separately, the County Board approved a $10,000 grant directly to the chamber itself to make up for lost event revenue.
Funded: Schools, nonprofits, rural internet, and tax relief
A host of other organizations have asked for and received CARES Act funding from the county.
Most notably, HBC received a $982,000 grant to expand rural broadband to underserved residents near Rollingstone, Nodine, and St. Charles.
The County Board approved $215,000 to Winona Health to reimburse it for the cost of COVID-19 diagnostic tests not covered by insurance, as well as $56,000 to help Hiawatha Valley Mental Health Center. Local child care providers may apply to the county for $1,000 grants — a program totaling $93,000. The county approved $18,000 for the St. Charles food shelf and $34,000 for Catholic Charities and its warming center.
In addition to CARES Act funding they received through the Minnesota Department of Education, numerous schools received assistance from the county: $64,700 for Winona Area Public Schools, $5,000 for Lewiston-Altura Public Schools, $15,000 for Plainview-Elgin-Millville Public Schools, $13,100 for St. John’s School in Nodine, $12,100 for St. Matthew’s Lutheran School in Winona, and $2,600 for Ridgeway Community School. Lewiston-Altura Public School requested another $23,500, and La Crescent-Hokah Public Schools asked for $19,200. Only a portion of the La Crescent and Plainview school districts are in Winona County. Fritz said St. Charles Public Schools did not make a request.
Finally, the county plans to spend a portion of its $6.2 million on itself. That includes proposals for $538,000 in COVID-related workplace upgrades — from software to support working from home to new HVAC systems intended to minimize the risk of COVID transmission inside county buildings.
County leaders have dedicated roughly $700,000 to staffing and equipment costs directly related to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. They aren’t using the money to expand public health staff; most of it will go to funding existing staff positions that were already paid for in this year’s budget. Instead, that $700,000 will create a surplus in this year’s budget that the County Board plans to use to offset the need for a property tax hike next year — essentially keeping more money in taxpayers’ pockets.
“The first goal was to get it out to the community,” Fritz said of the county’s decision to give most of its CARES Act funds away.
The Minnesota Department of Health recently had to help Winona County with contact tracing when the county was overwhelmed with cases in late August and early September. Pointing to that fact, County Board member Chris Meier asked last month, “If we find we have trouble getting it done in the recommended timeline, are we going to consider spending some of these CARES Act [funds] on contact tracing?” Other neighboring counties have hired additional contact tracers. Winona County is using mostly volunteers. That’s an option, Fritz responded, but the county health department hasn’t requested any funding for that.