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'We're not out of the storm yet': Amherst board maps out uses for CARES money

'We're not out of the storm yet': Amherst board maps out uses for CARES money

Only $3 for 13 weeks

AMHERST — With the clock ticking rapidly on a six-month window for spending $2.5 million in federal relief money to offset negative effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Amherst County Board of Supervisors has laid out a pathway for its use.

“... We’re being forced to spend it quickly,” Chairwoman Claudia Tucker said of the Dec. 30 deadline for the money to be spent. “I don’t like that. I think there’s room for all kinds of things to go wrong.”

After more than an hour of debate Tuesday, supervisors decided to use $1.2 million for salaries related to public safety and law enforcement employees, which County Finance Director Stacey Wilkes said could be covered through Dec. 30 with the federal money as an exception to a rule. The county can take that money and replace funds set aside in the newly enacted fiscal year 2021 budget, which gives $1.2 million to use beyond the Dec. 30 deadline as the board sees fit.

“We’re going to refer to that as the salary switch,” County Administrator Dean Rodgers said.

The board also decided to use $300,000 in grant money for businesses and another $200,000 in grants for nonprofits hurting from the pandemic, $500,000 for investment in broadband internet expansion efforts, reimbursement for COVID-19-related expenses in the amount of $58,900 and setting the rest aside for other qualifying projects until the $2,566,781 in CARES Act money is used up.

Rodgers said it is a difficult task to spend that much money in six months, with many complex variables factored in, especially in regard to broadband, and the county must act swiftly to not risk losing it.

“We’re trying to spread it as broadly across the community as we can and then if we can reach across everyone who’s been harmed, we can go deeper to help those who have been hurt worse,” Rodgers said.

“Six months in the government world is not a lot of time to get stuff done,” Wilkes added.

Supervisors said the $1.2 million in salaries gives the board much-needed room to build back its reserves and get savings in a good spot. The board opted this year to not enact a tax increase, though one as high as 6 cents per $100 of assessed value was heavily considered prior to the pandemic hitting the county’s economy in March.

“One of the reasons we were looking at a tax increase is we weren’t building our reserves enough,” Supervisor Tom Martin said.

Martin said he doesn’t want to see grants simply offset profit losses for businesses that have laid off employees and not brought them back to work. He and other supervisors said the county needs to be wise and purposeful in how the money is used.

“This money is not free,” Martin said. “Somebody is going to have pay for it down the road.”

Supervisor David Pugh said the board should set aside the $1.2 million for future needs. Budget cuts from COVID-19 caused the board to scale down its capital improvements, or items exceeding $50,000, drastically in the new budget.

“We were told how we were running out of money. Lo and behold, here’s our chance to put a little bit of that money away and add a little bit more to our unobligated reserve,” Pugh said, referring to recent budget discussions. “I think we should do that. I think it would be prudent and would help us in the long run in dealing with our future capital needs and possibly staving off future tax increases.”

The board decided not to offer grants for individual residents, noting that could later be revisited if needed. Victoria Hanson, executive director of the Amherst County Economic Development Authority, said a previous $25,000 grant program the EDA held for small businesses was helpful but didn’t go far enough in meeting needs.

“It was a scratch on the surface,” Hanson said, adding the CARES money would be helpful for businesses with 20 or more employees. “We do have businesses with over 20 employees that have suffered economic injury.”

The board also noted the importance of churches and organizations as nonprofits in serving local residents during the crisis.

Hanson spoke of Sweet Briar College’s role as a major employer in the county as a nonprofit. “Sweet Briar has a large economic impact on Amherst County,” she said. “They do have a large economic footprint.”

Rodgers said the pandemic leaving many people at home for extended periods has led many to clean out basements, garages and sheds and as a result the county’s landfill has been highly used. The CARES money goes toward reimbursing that extra staff time to work the landfill, among other similar expenses driven by responding directly to COVID-19.

Supervisor Jimmy Ayers stressed the need to hang on to the $1.2 million from salaries and not yet designate it because the county doesn’t know what will happen in upcoming months.

“I think we all fail to realize we’re not out of the storm yet. There is no prediction when we will come out of the storm,” Ayers said. “...We are nowhere, it appears to me, out of this storm yet.”

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

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