BEDFORD — The Bedford County Board of Supervisors decided Monday who will benefit from the first round of the federal CARES Act grants money it received on June 2.
Through the CARES Act, a federal coronavirus relief package, Virginia has received approximately $3.3 billion since the spring. Bedford County has so far received nearly $14 million of that to help offset expenses created by the pandemic.
On Monday night, after debating for more than an hour, supervisors voted 4-3 to pass a resolution appropriating the bulk of the funds to broadband development, small business support and education. The money can’t be used to make up for revenue shortfalls in Bedford County, such as decrease meals tax revenue and localities are encouraged to use the money for one-time expenses rather than ongoing operations. Any funds not spent by Dec. 30 must be returned to the state.
Bedford County will keep $1.25 million to pay for a variety of pandemic expenses incurred across county departments. The county set aside another $200,000 to assist low- to moderate-income residents and gave the Bedford Regional Water Authority $200,000, to offset a loss of revenue due to unpaid bills over the last several months.
Nonprofit organizations — including food banks, fire and rescue organizations, and social services support agencies — will receive $350,000 in CARES funding. Economic Development Director Tracy Blido said many nonprofits rely heavily on fundraising events to keep their missions going. With pandemic restrictions, most had been unable to hold their usual fundraising events, resulting in financial hardships.
Broadband development has risen to the forefront since the pandemic triggered an increase in remote learning for students and work-from-home policies for many working adults. Part of the $1.5 million appropriated to Bedford’s broadband development will go toward towers. Remaining funds may help lower the cost of one-time hookups and hotspot installations for qualifying low- to moderate-income citizens on a first-come, first-served basis, according to the resolution.
Remaining funds totaling $157,184 will be allocated for “contingency,” meaning any pandemic-related expenses that may appear in months to come.
Bedford County will give $575,000 to the town of Bedford.
Much of the disagreement during Monday night’s discussion centered around money for schools and local business support.
The resolution presented to the supervisors allocated Bedford County schools $1.5 million.
District 2 Supervisor Edgar Tuck and District 1 Supervisor Mickey Johnson said they would like to see the “schools” designation amended to say “education” expenses, freeing up funds for private schools, home school programs, and other community education programs instead of exclusively public schools.
District 6 Supervisor Bob Davis asked why so much money was needed for schools when students and faculty are “going to be spending less time in the classroom.”
County Administrator Robert Hiss said many expenses incurred for education came from the beginning of the pandemic when schools abruptly had to close down and educators had to find ways to finish the school year remotely. The money would pay for personal protective equipment, enhanced facility cleaning, and more Chromebooks for students in need of them as schools prepare to re-open this month.
Supervisors approved $1.25 million for small business assistance. It will fund a $1 million “Back to Business” grant program through the county’s Economic Development Authority, created to help struggling small businesses get back on their feet.
Chairman John Sharp and District 5 Supervisor Tommy Scott were against appropriating that much money for small-business assistance. District 3 Supervisor Charla Bansley was open to having some small business aid in place but questioned how the grant money would be policed. Sharp and Scott also asked how these grant funds would be adequately policed to ensure the money was used appropriately.
Sharp said he was concerned some small business owners would abuse grant money on non-business related expenses. He said he thought many small business owners who received PPP money should have enough financial help with those funds alone and questioned why they would need more.
Blido said the Back to Business grant program was created in part based on similar programs successfully implemented in surrounding counties and said a screening process and qualification parameters were in place to make sure only businesses that could prove a loss in revenue and demonstrate a need for additional assistance would receive grants. Such measures, she said, would offer the best chance at making sure funds were used properly and given only to businesses with a proven need.
Tuck said he would be willing to vote in favor of a Back to Business grant program if a portion of business support funds were designated to support parents trying to go back to work at a physical location by helping pay for childcare.
After the debate, a motion passed in a 4-3 vote to appropriate all $6,892,184 round one CARES funds as proposed, but with amendments to two categories. Schools funds were directed to education; and $250,000 of the $1.25 million appropriated for small business aid was earmarked to help working parents with child care costs. Sharp, Davis and Scott opposed the motion.
Bedford County has yet to create a spending plan for the second round of CARES Act funds, which is also $6,892,184.