Becker County has mostly divvied up the $4.2 million it received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. Here is a look at where the bulk of the money is going:
Business grants: The county’s crown jewel is the $1 million to be distributed as small business relief grants, and the county has initially awarded even more than that, for a total of $1,056,000, said Becker County Administrator Mike Brethorst.
Unfortunately, he added, it’s likely that not all of that money will be distributed, since the amount of the checks will depend on the paperwork submitted by each business, confirming that expenses were COVID-related.
“Federal rules require proof,” Brethorst said. “In the end, it may not all be distributed … not all will get the full amount.”
County employees: A big chunk of the CARES money, $750,000, was originally allotted for personnel costs for Becker County public safety employees.
But the county recently learned it had more flexibility in how that money is spent: “Becker County can now allocate public safety wages with CARES Act money,” Brethorst said. Meaning it can use the federal money to pay wages from March 1 to the present. “That will free up levy money to pay for (COVID-related) stuff we can’t pay for by Dec. 1,” he added. “The projects will be completed by then, but we won’t have all the bills in by then.”
That’s important because the CARES Act requires that the county’s $4.2 million be dispersed by Dec. 1 or returned to the state, which in turn will return it to federal coffers if it doesn’t use it. “We want to use the money locally,” Brethorst said.
Sheriff's office and dispatch center: The biggest single CARES expenditure is a $1.27 million project to revamp the sheriff’s office and dispatch center at the courthouse. “It’s a huge project,” Brethorst said, that includes upgrading the dispatch center to give dispatchers more space and greater capabilities. “It will be a modern dispatch center,” he said, with safe distances between workstations, larger monitors, and other improvements, to protect against COVID now and any other viruses that may show up in the future.
As far as the sheriff’s office redesign, Brethorst said, “we are modeling our layout after the city of Detroit Lakes layout (in its new police department). That means more office space for investigators, and docking stations for deputies to plug in their laptops to write reports. “Deputies no longer need cubicles, they all work (on laptops) in their squad cars,” he said.
The main lobby is being enlarged to include a ramp and external breezeway to provide more space and improved handicapped access. A new $68,000 emergency generator is also part of the package. It will be installed outside, not inside like the former generator, which was removed as a safety risk.
Solid waste: A $330,000 project at the Becker County Transfer Station involves tearing down the old recycling building near the exit and replacing it with a new drive-thru pay station. The existing pay station building will remain as a back-up transfer station, Brethorst said.
The transfer station benefited from a $15,000 fiber optic installation between buildings to allow for improved communications and also remote monitoring and access when needed.
Environmental Services qualified for about $60,000 in CARES funding to compensate for lost work flow at the recycling center during the COVID shutdown. Jail inmates were not able to sort recyclables for shipping, forcing the county to ship unsorted recyclables in bulk to the Twin Cities for processing, which was much more expensive, Brethorst said.
Theater and museum lobby: A $290,000 project will improve the lobby and create a walkway between the Historic Holmes Theatre and the new county museum addition.
Technology: The county spent about $209,000 on computers, sound systems, web cameras, monitors, docking stations and other remote work equipment, all needed to provide the capability for about half the county’s 350 employees to work from home when necessary.
Along similar lines, $13,000 went to buy document scanners to allow health and human services employees to scan paperwork and documents for at-home work.
The effort to enable those employees to work from home included an $85,000 software package for the scanners and other equipment, Brethorst said.
That’s an investment for now, but also for the future, Brethorst said. “If we can spend those dollars now, we can also prepare for a future COVID-19 spread,” he said.
A much-need improvement in the County Board room sound system will cost about $54,000.
The county is paying $162,000 for high-quality aerial photos to improve its GIS system.
Other office space, staff: A $17,000 project will modify office space at the county attorney’s office and auditor-treasurer’s office, to provide walls, plexiglass barriers and other virus safety improvements for employees and visitors.
The county spent about $4,000 on temporary staff increases at its Department of Motor Vehicles office at the courthouse, and also will pay for temporary six or seven temporary election workers at the auditor-treasurer’s office, Brethorst said.
Townships: The county also paid out about $32,000 total to five townships and two cities, all with fewer than 200 residents -- as required by the CARES Act. Three townships that would have qualified opted to save the red tape and didn’t apply to the county, he said.
The county expects to receive $73,000 or more from townships that did not completely spend their federal CARES Act funds. That money will be coded for public safety and public health, or can be used by the county for COVID-related needs that come up, he said.
Committed to business
Those are the major CARES Act allotments, all of which must pass federal muster as being connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I do a full-blown analysis of all expenses and all must be approved by the full County Board,” Brethorst said.
But he is most proud of the county’s $1 million business relief fund. The county spent nearly a quarter of its overall grant on its business relief program, more than double the 10% recommended by the state.
“Becker County is committed to supporting these businesses,” he said.