Aiming to whip a $1 million business-relief fund into shape, Becker County commissioners met remotely Tuesday with business development consultant Skip Carpenter and talked in person with Roger Winter about possible township participation in the program.

Carpenter is with the West Central Minnesota Small Business Development Center, which has offered to help establish the program and administer the grants.

Winter, of Callaway Township, is chair of the Becker County Township Association.

Becker County has set 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, but the clock is ticking, since it must be spent or returned to the state by Dec. 1.

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On Tuesday, commissioners worked toward a consensus on the program.

“Do we divide the $1 million equally or prioritize it among applicants?” asked Commissioner Barry Nelson. “Do we share it out equally (among applicants) or fully fund some and then cut it off?”

The consensus among commissioners is that they would rather see all eligible applicants get something, rather than prioritizing and fully funding some requests while others got nothing.

Commissioner Ben Grimsley said it would make sense that larger local businesses with more employees, like a hotel, would receive more relief funding than a smaller operation like a hair salon. He spoke in favor of a more complex formula based on the size of the business and the size of the loss, among other factors.

Nelson said locally owned businesses should get help before corporate-owned franchises.

And while commissioners agreed the businesses that have already received federal or state help should not be able to “double dip” into the county funds to receive more in total government aid than they actually lost, there’s no reason the county can’t add to earlier state and federal funding to make those businesses whole, so they break even, Nelson said.

Becker County officials have been brainstorming on the issue with Otter Tail and Clay County officials, said Becker County Administrator Mike Brethorst. “There are a lot of moving parts, but the bottom line is the program is designed to help as many businesses as we can,” he said.

Winter said some of the smaller townships might prefer to forgo the red tape and donate their federal COVID-19 funds to Becker County for use in its business relief program. “Some smaller townships are afraid of the paperwork,” and probably rightly so, he said. “Larger townships can use it for extra election judges and extra booths. They can buy a lot of masks and do a lot of cleaning,” he said. “I can see them using some of it for things like a scanner,” he said.

Winter liked a suggestion by Brethorst that the county send out letters to townships explaining the situation, stating how much each township would receive in federal relief funding, and letting them know that excess dollars could be directed to the county business relief program.

The amount each gets is based on population. Cormorant Township, for example, will get about $27,000, while a smaller township might get about $500, Winter said.

If there is a second wave of COVID-19 in the autumn and businesses have to shut down again, some of the county money could be used to help at that time. “We’ll have it set up to roll out as soon as we get it, so money coming in late (from townships and cities) will still get used,” Nelson said.

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

Facility improvements are an allowable expense, and the county is looking at spending some of its COVID-19 funding on remodeling the sheriff’s office and dispatch center to provide better social distancing space for employees there.

On Tuesday, the board accepted the low quote of $51,700 from Klein McCarthy Architects of St. Louis Park for a full design scope of the sheriff’s office project. It will be paid through the federal COVID-19 funds, but commissioners said they would reject unreasonable construction bids.

“If we get gouged we’re not going to do it,” Nelson said.

“We will have the design for the future, (but) we don’t want to spend CARES money on something that's double the cost -- it’s taxpayers’ money,” said Commissioner Larry Knutson.