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Benton County rejects business loan idea, saves federal money for projects

by Doug Thompson | April 8, 2021 at 7:21 a.m.
NWA Democrat-Gazette/CHARLIE KAIJO Benton County's special election to vote on building a new court facility begins March 12. If the proposed tax increase passes, the county would spend another $5 million to update the downtown Bentonville courthouse, including the courtroom on the third floor.

BENTONVILLE -- More than $3.6 million in federal covid relief money should go for projects such as jail improvements and bridge repair, a Benton County Quorum Court subcommittee decided Tuesday.

Congress appropriated the money March 27 to reimburse local governments for covid-related expenses already incurred and still underway.

Subcommittee members decided using the money for capital projects is justified. Money already spent on covid includes payment for covid-19 vaccination clinics, major disruptions to county operations that required shifting personnel to different tasks and personal protection equipment, said members of the subcommittee of the Finance Committee.

The Finance Committee set up the special subcommittee to determine the best use of the $3.6 million provided by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act of 2020. The act divided $150 billion among local governments.

The Washington County Quorum Court started discussions in December on what to do with its $4.5 million in covid relief money. The court has yet to reach a consensus for the bulk of the money, although its Finance and Budget Committee on Tuesday recommended specific covid-related projects such as $332,000 for building renovations to reduce covid risks won approval.

The committee also moved to the Quorum Court a proposal to spend $219,000 of the money on a one-year pilot program with Returning Home, a Springdale-based nonprofit group serving men and women recently released from prison. The program would provide beds for 10 men who have been arrested for "technical" parole or probation violations who might otherwise be returned to prison.

Benton County Justice of the Peace Joseph Bollinger proposed March 4 to set up a $1 million fund from the money for grants to small businesses hurt by the pandemic. Bollinger also served on the subcommittee, which met for the first and last time Tuesday. Bollinger's was the only specific proposal the subcommittee considered.

The majority of subcommittee members said they couldn't justify handing out $1 million in grants and then possibly asking for a tax increase for needed projects, according to the discussion at the meeting.

In addition, the county has no experience or organization to hand out grants, committee members said.

Also, while Congress put few restrictions on how the money can be spent, state restrictions applied as soon as the money was deposited in the county's general fund, County Judge Barry Moehring told the subcommittee. Whether county general fund money legally could be used for grants to private businesses would need to be researched, he said.

The subcommittee passed a joint motion to reject Bollinger's proposal and to disband. The motion prevailed in a 5-to-2 vote. Joel Edwards, Mike McKenzie, Tom Allen, Brian Armas and Susan Anglin voted for the rejection and to disband. Bollinger and Carrie Perrien Smith voted against it.

Smith said the Quorum Court should leave its options open, particularly since more federal covid relief money is expected this year.

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