Matt Hilgart, a government affairs director with the Association of Minnesota Counties, said the rush to get CARES Act money out the door should not be interpreted as evidence it’s been wasted to date. Just the opposite, Hilgart said.
“There were delays in getting the funding, and frankly no guidance,” he said.
“For smaller counties, to have the administration to set up programs — business assistance programs, hospital relief programs — was a tall task,” Hilgart added. “It didn’t help we had only 12 pages of question and answers from the federal government, some of which conflicted with each other.”
Since funding first became available in July, Sherburne County used its CARES money to create a purchasing program for restaurants, focused on everything from outdoor tents to technology. Pine County partnered with their local technical college to create free training opportunities for dislocated workers, shifting them into welding and other fields.
In northern Minnesota, three counties — Itasca, Koochiching and St. Louis — partnered to create an assistance program specific to loggers after a paper mill suspended operations. In southeastern Minnesota, Mower County created a similar program for hog suppliers.
Itasca County, like several other counties, used some of its CARES money to house a growing homeless population and prevent COVID spread among populations that would have a tough time socially distancing in traditional shelter operations.
Because its population exceeds 500,000, Ramsey County received $96 million in CARES funding as a direct federal appropriation in March, giving it an earlier start than most other counties. In the case of both Ramsey and Hennepin counties, any unspent CARES dollars this year would be redirected to the largest hospitals in their boundaries.
Since then, Hilgart said, Ramsey County officials have been generous with their time, joining his association on webinars to demonstrate how to set up CARES-funded initiatives, a boon for smaller counties that did not have the time or staff to build new programs from scratch.
“Needing to use funds within such a short period of time is tough, but there has been enough need,” said Ramsey County Board Chair Toni Carter. “We were able to provide guidance to programs throughout the metropolitan area and the state.”
Even before their CARES funding came through, Rock County in southwestern Minnesota had launched a business assistance program based on that of Ramsey County.
“Rock County kept calling me at the end of session saying ‘When is this CARES Act funding going to go? We can’t wait another week,’” Hilgart recalled.
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