ASHLAND – How to disperse funds received from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act to small businesses dominated last week’s meeting of Ashland Town Council.
Town Manager Joshua Farrar, who explained that the funding would be handled in the form of a FY2020-2021 Budget Amendment, said the town’s first half of funding under the CARES Act of 2020 was $684,010. Those monies were received by Hanover County from Virginia. The county then provided that portion to Ashland.
According to Farrar, the county notified town staff in July about the second half.
Referring to the action was “very formal procedural,” the town manager said council would need to adopt a budget amendment and appropriate the CARES Act fund.
In his presentation, Farrar said that the CARES spending plan is similar but separate as to what was originally passed. He said the town will focus on business support, which was designated by the federal program trying to stay afloat during a pandemic.
He said the goal is “to support local governments in their responses to the pandemic.” Direct dollars are being spent on PPE (personal protective equipment).
Farrar also noted that the funding is being utilized to “help your community engage in and live in a COVID-19 world.”
With counties being the primary recipients of state funds, Virginia directed that “a fair share” be given to towns. Farrar said that was “the extent of the instruction. There is no real set formula on how that was to be distributed.”
Saying Ashland has a “good relationship with Hanover County,” he said the town portion – based on population – comes in two batches of $684,010 each.
In order to keep funds fair to the town and county, Ashland businesses were exempt from the county program and the county was exempt from the Ashland program, Farrar added.
Notice of the second batch of funds was received on June 29, with a spending plan presented on July 7.
Farrar reviewed the months of May, June and July, saying that money was already spent, which had been a concern of citizens, as well as local governments. Public procurements must abide by federal guidelines too.
On July 28, Governor Northam announced the second round of funds would be distributed. Ashland representatives discussed the funding on Aug. 3, learning that the county was willing to designate the same amount to the town.
On Tuesday, Sept. 1, Farrar said they were what he called “planning mode, where we want to move with this second round of funding.”
He did say that the costs associated with the pandemic were not planned for, having been incurred March 1 through Dec. 20.
CARES funding cannot, Farrar continued, be used to make up for revenue. However, they can go toward utilities assistance; waste management costs (up significantly with everyone at home); broadband expansion (eligibility a question since Comcast provides service in the town); and wages for employees (eligible expenses – “whether we want to use those, not recommending using any from second pot”).
Farrar recommended that members of the Ashland Police Department qualify for hazard pay since they will “still be out and responding and doing their job in the pandemic. Police officers obviously are eligible. It was very easy to justify in round one.”
He does suggest that hazard pay continue in round two for police officers. He also mentioned other employees that are focused on public safety.
Funds also could be utilized to aid business support; homeless facilities; housing and rental assistance; and capital facility improvements (“small adjustments to this building -- sneeze guards all those little things that keep our employees safe). Farrar said the HVAC system had been upgraded to operate in a COVID world.
On July 7, he said they had to delve into expenditures “that went back to March and had to account for some of it.”
When COVID-19 struck, Farrar said Ashland Town Hall employees were not prepared to work remotely, but that they are “in a really, really good position now. It works absolutely wonderfully – it’s a dramatic improvement.”
Additional funding went toward PPE, cleaning supplies, enhanced janitorial services, and bio-hazard. “When we did this in July,” Farrar said, “we had no idea how long it was going to be.”
For round two, Farrar was recommending $130,000 hazard pay for police, and a business grant, a new program asking businesses to submit an application to show they were down at least 25% in revenue. Federal guidelines mandate it must be a small business to qualify.
Farrar and council then entered into a discussion about how to best use the money. Farrar suggested allowing 45 businesses to apply for $10,000 each. He said that using $10,000 as a placeholder would put the town in “a very competitive position with our regional partners.”
“I am asking you to give me a long leash right now because I want to get the money in business’ hands,” Farrar said. His goal was to release the program last week.
Mayor Steve Trivett said it was an issue of less money to more businesses. “The town has a value to the community, and so I’ve gotten the feeling that some people have begrudged the town for spending money on the town.”
He also pointed out that he agrees that acting on releasing the funds would be best if handled “the sooner the better.”
Farrar said there has to be a list of uses for the funds. The application period may run until about Sept. 30, with checks being mailed by Oct. 15 at the latest. “The earlier folks get their applications in to us; they’re going to be good once the checks are ready to roll. I guarantee this is being audited so I want our ducks in a row.”
Those who are awarded funding must certify the paperwork with a signature.
Council member John Hodges asked what happens if a business is proven to be ineligible to receive the funding. Farrar said the monies would have to be returned.
Council member Kathy Abbott said her concern stems from at least 45 businesses and possibly more applying for the funding. “So what I struggle with is kind of throwing out that $10,000 and we receive perfectly wonderful applications in the 60 range and we immediately go into a lottery. There are probably some businesses that can do with a little less.”
“All right, we’re over 45 (applicants), let’s flip it to a lottery. We have another threshold. This is going to reduce everyone’s amount to $7,500, which would still be on par with the county. I want people to be cognizant that their [request] may impact other businesses that need money,” she added.
She did say, “I love that we’re making that extra effort to help Ashland businesses.”
A concern for Hodges is helping more rather than less. With $10,000 available, he said, “If we get more than 45, then you go to $7,500 and [businesses] would automatically come to us.”
Farrar explained that an equal division would be no lower than $7,500. “The bottom line is we’ve got to get the word out,” Hodges said.
“I’m more inclined to make it a hard number,” Trivett said. “Is it better for a business to have something set or wait-and-see?”
“If they know the least amount coming in is $7,500, they can plan,” Abbott said.
In addition to small businesses, Farrar said they want to help with a non-profit assistance grant. That would aid those organizations that, he said, “enhance our quality of life.” He said he had a list of seven non-profits, and three are business support organizations.
The non-profits must be Ashland-based, with a home or office location within the town limits.
Of the $680,010, Farrar said he would like the town to use the last $4,000 for outside furniture, which would enable the issue of social distancing. He said he’d like to see an environment created “where you could safely meet with people outside.”
The budget amendment received unanimous approval in the vote.
In closing that segment of the meeting, Abbott offered her thanks, saying it was “a smart way to use this funding, and should resonate well in our community in trying to help.”
Ashland Town Council next meets at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 15, at Ashland Town Hall at 101 Thompson St. in Ashland.