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Washington County to continue CARES Act debate

by Tom Sissom | February 20, 2021 at 7:00 a.m.
File photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/STACY RYBURN The Washington County Courthouse is seen July 27 in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County justices of the peace will continue their debate on how to spend $4.5 million in federal covid-19 relief money at the next Quorum Court meeting.

An ordinance to allocated $3.6 million of the money was left on the agenda for the March 18 meeting after it failed to gain enough votes to pass at Thursday's meeting.

An ordinance requires 10 votes to move forward from its first reading. The CARES Act ordinance received five yes votes from Judith Yanez, Shawndra Washington, Eva Madison, Suki Highers and Evelyn Stafford. Voting no were Shannon Marti, Sean Simons, Patrick Deakins, Lisa Ecke, Sam Duncan, Robert Dennis, Jim Wilson, Butch Pond and Lance Johnson. Justice of the Peace Willie Leming abstained from voting.

The justices of the peace offered widely different views on how the county should use the money. Duncan, of District 7 west of Fayetteville and Farmington, said the county should limit itself to what he called "law and order" governmental functions and "shared" services such as county roads.

"Other people believe government has other purposes," Duncan said.

Stafford, of District 10 in Fayetteville, said the county and the nation are in a "once-in-a-century" pandemic calling for measures beyond the ordinary from government.

"People are hurting through no fault of their own," she said. "This is not a time for business as usual."

Simons, who represents District 3 in Springdale, said he sees merit on both sides of the discussion and hopes the justices of the peace can continue working on the ordinance. He said he's hesitant to act immediately because the future of the pandemic is unknown and the county will face other issues. He also said more money allocated to covid-related assistance, like the $7.1 million for housing and rental assistance the county has also received, may yet become available.

"That's difficult to say 'Let's sit on our hands and wait.'" Simons said. "That's not what everyone wants to hear. But I have some real concerns about what the future is going to look like."

Public comment was also divided, but most favored using the money for some kind of immediate covid-related relief.

Chris Seawood, executive pastor of the St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Fayetteville, said the food pantry run through the church has seen the number of people using the service multiply during the pandemic.

"If you gave us $100,000 tomorrow, we'd spend it in 20 weeks," he said. "The need is that dire."

Susan Gardner of Fayetteville said she has been restocking the Little Free Pantry locations more and more frequently.

"People are falling through the cracks and we need you to do something," she said.

Jana Starr of Springdale said she thought putting money aside was prudent.

"We don't know what's going to happen later," she said.

The county was awarded the $4.5 million largely for payroll expenses for employees in public safety and law enforcement jobs. County Treasurer Bobby Hill has told the justices of the peace the money isn't restricted and can be used for any legal county purposes.

Madison, who represents District 9 in Fayetteville, sponsored the ordinance. Madison said the $3.6 million would be divided between aid to small businesses, money to hunger relief, and money to provide financial assistance to residents who have lost their homes or experienced financial difficulties related to homelessness or housing insecurity.

Madison said the county could provide this type of assistance by contracting with other agencies and nonprofit groups to administer the programs. The ordinance listed area chambers of commerce as partners for the small business aid program, food banks and other nonprofit food distribution services in Washington County to administer the hunger relief program and homeless shelters or agencies providing services to the homeless or financially vulnerable to provide the housing assistance.

On Friday, Madison said she thinks the Quorum Court may still decide to use the money for covid relief and she wants to work with other justices of the peace to find an acceptable compromise.

"Last night was tough, but it wasn't hopeless," she said.

Leming, who represents District 13 in western Washington County, said Friday he doesn't think the county should be "giving away" money and would rather see the money returned to the state.

"I'm 100% against giving taxpayers' money away," he said. "I just don't feel that's right."

Benton County also received money under the CARES Act, with the county being awarded about $3.8 million. Comptroller Brenda Peacock said the county had about $500,000 in out-of-pocket expenses related to the pandemic, including money for personal protective equipment, shields for county offices open to the public, antibacterial fogging systems and other items.

Most of Benton County's reimbursement money was awarded on the basis of payroll expenses for employees "directly impacted by covid-19 related duties or activities" including jailers, deputies, dispatchers and bailiffs.

Benton County Judge Barry Moehring said the use of the money will be discussed at the March 4 meeting of the Quorum Court's Finance Committee.

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CARES Act

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act is a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed into law in March to provide relief to workers, families and small businesses affected the covid-19 pandemic.

Source: U.S. Department of the Treasury

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