Becker County is setting aside $1 million to help businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The money will come from $4.2 million in federal CARES Act money, which must be spent or returned to the state by Dec. 1.

The County Board approved the $1 million business-relief fund as a starting point, and will likely dedicate more money towards the fund as it clarifies its plans. Townships and cities are also receiving money from CARES, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, and some of those entities may decide to devote part of their funds to the county business-relief fund.

Detroit Lakes, for example, is receiving over $700,000 in CARES funding, and may opt to devote some of its excess to business relief, said Becker County Administrator Mike Brethorst.

Townships generally don’t have a lot of COVID-19 related expenses, and may opt to collaborate with the county on business relief, he added.

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Between the county, cities and townships, more than $6 million in CARES money is expected to flow into Becker County, Brethorst said.

Because time is short, commissioners agreed that the business relief program needs to be set up and implemented soon.

Brethorst said the West Central Minnesota Small Business Development Center has offered to help set-up a program and help with grant administration once it's up and running. Business development consultant Skip Carpenter is available for the project, he said.

The funds could be distributed as grants or forgivable loans, Brethorst said, and the program could be up and running in 60 days.

The state has already developed criteria for a similar program, said Commissioner Don Skarie. Businesses that are eligible are chosen by lottery, “so there’s no favoritism, because you have to be really careful with that,” Skarie said. “We can’t be making the decision on who gets it.”

Commissioner John Okeson agreed that the county has to be careful on how the program is administered. Commissioner Barry Nelson also agreed, adding that the County Board should have a say in setting the criteria for which businesses qualify for the funds.

Commissioner Ben Grimsley said the county may want to look at different size grants for different types of businesses. Local motels would need more help than hair salons, for example, he said.

Commissioners agreed it would be best to help businesses that have not yet received federal help in the form of Paycheck Protection Program dollars or other COVID-19 relief programs.

Becker County has about $500,000 in COVID-19 expenses that need to be reimbursed from the federal grant, Nelson said, and there are other county needs.

“Facility improvements are an allowable expense,” Brethorst said, and the Sheriff’s Office, Human Services Department, and Auditor-Treasurer’s Office all need space improvements, as does the law library.

Commissioners on Tuesday opted to tentatively proceed with plans to remodel the cramped sheriff’s office and dispatch center to provide better social distancing space for employees there.

“To get this done by Dec. 1 is almost unfeasible,” Grimsley said. “How much are they (contractors) going to hang us out on prices?”

Other commissioners were also concerned about costs, and agreed that the sheriff’s office project will only go forward if contractors submit reasonable bids.

Becker County Auditor-Treasurer Mary Hendrickson said she expects the county to receive the $4.2 million on Wednesday.