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Blair inches toward releasing CARES grants

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County leaders said Tuesday that they’re closing in on awarding grants to help small businesses, tourism and nonprofit agencies address COVID-19 expenses and losses.

Commissioners may be in a position today to address one of the major categories, Chairman Bruce Erb said Tuesday during a meeting in which $6 million was allocated among the following four spending categories:

— $2.1 million to grant programs to help small businesses.

— $1.43 million to assist municipalities for COVID-19 response and planning, including the purchase of personal protective equipment.

— $26,402 to nonprofit assistance programs for tax-exempt entities.

— $2.73 million for offsetting the cost of the county’s COVID-19 direct response, planning and outreach efforts, including the purchase of personal protective equipment.

The division also reflected a $300,000 reduction previously assigned — but not needed based on requests — for entities with costs assisting businesses during the pandemic.

The county, which received an $11 million allocation from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, initially allocated $5 million among spending categories and set up an application process.

By initially holding off on designating categories for the rest of the money, the county was in a position to see where the needs were greater and assign money accordingly, County Administrator Nicole Hemminger said Tuesday.

As for when the commissioners will decide who gets how much, Erb said today might be a possibility for one category. At 1:30 p.m. today, commissioners are convening, through video and telephone connections, to take action on items reviewed Tuesday.

Hemminger offered assurance Tuesday that awards are forthcoming, including allocations for businesses that have provided all the requested paperwork and for businesses that still need to turn in paperwork.

“We want to make sure all of our T’s and all of our I’s are crossed and dotted respectively,” Hemminger said.

Commissioners in Centre, Cambria, Bedford and Clearfield, which also received CARES allocations, took action in October identifying the businesses, government and nonprofit agencies inside their borders that would be receiving grants.

“We have taken and asked our consultants to take great care to make sure it’s done right,” Erb said Tuesday. “One of the reasons is that if we don’t precisely follow the CARES Act, then the county is on the hook to recoup or refund those monies back to (the state) and eventually the U.S. Treasury.”

County personnel, including Hemminger and Erb, have been working on the allocations with representatives for Susquehanna Accounting Services of Harrisburg, the firm hired to assist with managing the county’s $11 million allocation.

Commissioner Laura Burke asked Tuesday about the opportunity to prioritize county governmental expenses that can be covered by CARES allocations. She said she knew of two departments with COVID-19 expenses beyond what they originally reported.

If those expenses are to be covered, then reimbursement toward county, salaries could be reduced, Hemminger suggested.

Burke also asked about covering the cost associated with more COVID-19 testing, such as the recent set-up the state arranged, with Blair County’s support, at the Blair County Convention Center. Over several days, 3,820 tests were administered.

“Another testing center, I would advocate for that if the opportunity arises,” Burke said.

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