Becker County has a March 15 deadline for distributing its latest $665,000 state grant for COVID-19-related business relief.

On Tuesday, commissioners discussed how best to allocate the money to local businesses and non-profit organizations in need.

“I’d like to see it opened up across the board to businesses that were closed or had significant negative effects,” said Commissioner Barry Nelson. “It has to be COVID-related.”

The county has greater flexibility with its most recent state grant, and may be able to design a more user-friendly business grant program, Nelson said.

The county also has about $750,000 left from earlier federal CARES Act funding that it has earmarked for paying its public safety personnel, and now Nelson would like to see the county “use some of (that) money we set aside earlier and get it out to bars and restaurants.”

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Commissioner Ben Grimsley agreed that that option should be considered, along with several others.

“We should keep open indefinitely (a separate) $2,000 grant program,” he said. “We should think about businesses that are not being paid by the state because they are not down 30% (from last year’s sales tax revenue), and we should consider Grant Round 3 and use our payroll-coded CARES money to do another grant round.”

Grimsley said he’d prefer to see the county spend its new money first. “We have to make sure it’s coded right so the county doesn’t get stuck paying back the money (to the state),” he said.

He said he isn’t sure the county will be able to spend the new state money in time to meet the March 15 deadline, let alone the earlier CARES Act dollars that have been payroll-coded.

But Nelson thinks it’s feasible to do both. “This is money that will go fairly quickly and the county should give away more of that other COVID-19 money,” he said. “This whole board wants to get money to businesses that need it, but we want to make sure it goes to the businesses that need it the most.”

So far, 66 businesses have applied for the county’s $2,000-grant program, said Becker County Administrator Mike BretHorst.

The new $2,000 grants will go to businesses that have experienced financial hardship by having to close their doors or modify their operations because of Minnesota’s latest executive orders.

“This is a streamlined program, to get funds out quickly to those businesses directly impacted by the governor’s executive order,” said Grimsley.

Grant applicants:

  • Must operate within Becker County.

  • May employ no more than 25 employees as of Dec. 15.

  • Restaurants need a valid food license.

  • Bars need a valid liquor License.

  • Fitness centers, movie theaters, recreation centers, and museums are eligible, along with other businesses ordered to close (as defined within Minnesota Executive Order 20-99).

Businesses that qualify for the $2,000 grants must use the money to cover pandemic-related costs like payroll, expense support, rent, mortgage payments, utility bills, and similar business expenses.

As far as the $665,000 going to Becker County from the new state relief bill, the measure gives counties a lot of flexibility to set eligibility and program guidelines for businesses and nonprofits, and to set minimum and maximum amounts.

Receiving previous state grants or loans does not necessarily block businesses from qualifying for these new grants -- it’s up to the county.

Here are some details, according to legislative information passed on by Grimsley:

  • These grants are not limited to economic distress caused by the most recent executive order. They apply to financial problems caused by all executive orders stemming back to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Grants will go to businesses and nonprofits with no current tax liens on record with the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office.

  • The legislation is clear that nonprofits, nonprofit arts organizations, museums, and fitness centers are eligible for grants.

  • Grants must be awarded by March 15, and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development will give a report to the Legislature on how counties spent the funds by June 30.