From the initial denial of the $12.8 million in CARES Act funds specifically allocated to Lebanon County, to the subsequent agreement to release the funds, many have had strong opinions about why they were withheld and who has power over them. It is critical to understand a few things for our community to move forward.
The CARES Act County Relief Block Grant has many restrictions as defined by the CARES Act and detailed in the overview from the state Department of Community and Economic Development. One restriction is that the money is for expenses that “were incurred during the period that begins on March 1, 2020 and ends on December 30, 2020.” This is important because once the funds were withheld from Lebanon County, the clock was ticking.
No matter where you stand on the side of the county’s lawsuit or the withholding of funds, we can all agree that the legal process can take a long time to come to a resolution, with the potential to drag on so close to the spending deadline that the money becomes worthless in its ability to have an impact. Negotiating an agreement was presumably the best way to resolve the issue as quickly as possible, allowing the money to get into our community now and not in three or four months. Negotiations mean concessions are often made for the greater good. We are already two months behind the other 66 counties of Pennsylvania and many of our businesses and non-profits are feeling it.
Let’s take a look at one of the allocations in the settlement, a $2.8 million mask campaign for Lebanon County. As someone who spent 30 years in the marketing industry, this is a huge campaign for the size of our county. But look at it another way. This money has the potential to support so many of our Lebanon County businesses in its delivery. Videographers, graphic designers, copywriters, advertising agencies, newspapers, printers, radio, and the list goes on. The best way to spend this money is to put as much as possible back into the pockets of our local businesses as earned income for services provided. We need to be creative in its use. It is not only a valid reminder to wear a mask but also as a huge influx of money into our local economy.
The proposed division of money to different sectors was not a whimsical decision. The CARES Act County Relief Block Grant has great limitations. While it may be easy to assume that it is being distributed disproportionately, the process of deciding where the money was allocated was vetted and thorough. I was gratefully part of some of the conversations in determining how many small businesses and non-profits may need grant money. An analysis of the number of businesses and non-profits in the county and the percentage that may apply coupled with correspondence and surveys, added to the final decision. I am sure the same process of requesting input from outside sources was used to determine the other money allocations. Keep in mind that this money is not to fund or create new programs but can only be used “to cover costs of the Commonwealth that: are necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).” Therefore, whether its school districts, small business, or substance use disorder programs, the money can only go to shortfalls in COVID 19 expenses that previous funding hasn’t covered.
Millions of dollars of CARES Act money has already been infused into our county under different programs to support various sectors (schools, childcare centers, food assistance, etc.). The county relief block grants are to supplement programs that may have had shortfalls or no coverage.
Whether you agree with the decisions or not, I ask that you understand why some of them may have been made.
The bottom line is, while an estimated $170 million dollars were injected in Lebanon County through the EIDL Emergency Advance and Paycheck Protection Program, our small businesses, non-profits, and tourism industry are still in dire need of assistance to make it through the next few months. Getting these funds out as quickly as possible is the best way to offer a lifeline.
Karen Groh, is president and CEO of the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce.