Washington County OKs $7.1 million for covid-19 related rental assistance

The Washington County Courthouse is seen in Fayetteville in this undated file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County will be receiving about $7.1 million for emergency rental assistance due to the covid-19 pandemic, County Judge Joseph Wood told the Quorum Court 0n Thursday.

Wood told the justices of the peace the county is receiving money from the most recent federal covid-19 relief legislation, which was approved in December. Wood said Benton County should receive about $8 million and the state will also receive about $200 million.

Wood said the county will partner with the Fayetteville Housing Authority and with Hark, a nonprofit foundation working to connect Northwest Arkansas residents with community resources and services, to make the rental assistance money available.

Wood said the details of the program should be completed within the next two weeks.

Judith Yanez, justice of the peace for District 4, asked other community nonprofit groups be invited to participate in the program. Yanez said Hark doesn't serve all residents in the community.

"If other nonprofits are not included, these funds go so fast they may not be available," Yanez said.

An ordinance appropriating the money was approved Thursday by the Quorum Court.

The county has already been awarded about $4.5 million on CARES Act money and several members of the public asked the justices of the peace to direct at least some of that money to rental assistance and other covid-19 related needs, including food assistance and homelessness.

Clint Schnekloth, pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, criticized the county for not having any public discussion about how to use the $4.5 million. He said county officials were asked in December to have a public discussion of the CARES Act money but nothing has been done.

"It's terrible, it's embarrassing and you should be ashamed of yourselves," Schnekloth said. "You are sitting on $4.5 million that could help your neighbors and you are doing nothing."

Also at Thursday's meeting, Sheriff Tim Helder asked the justices of the peace to consider appropriating money from the $4.5 million in CARES Act funding. Helder asked the justices of the peace to approve about $298,050 to purchase body-worn cameras for field deputies and for jailers and about $176,369 to buy a body scanner for the jail.

The two ordinances were read for the first time at Thursday's meeting but failed to garner enough votes to be approved. They will remain on the Quorum Court's agenda next month.

According to information submitted to the Quorum Court by the Sheriff's Office, purchasing body-worn cameras has been considered in the past but was deemed too expensive. With improvements in technology, the Sheriff's Office estimates the cost has been reduced from as much as $650,000. Additionally, with newer technology and different licensing requirements, the cameras can now be used by more than one deputy allowing the Sheriff's Office to have cameras that are available for jailers on multiple shifts.

The information from the Sheriff's Office also indicated with the newer technology, reproducing and redacting videos would be less time-consuming. In the past, according to the Sheriff's Office, a redaction process could take seven or eight hours to process a one-hour video. The new technology is expected to cut that time to about 90 minutes or less for a hour-long video.

The use of body-worn cameras has become more common in the recent past, according to the Sheriff's Office, and public perception of law enforcement officers has changed with the greater availability of video recordings of incidents.

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Emergency rent assistance

Washington County has spent $7.1 million in federal money for emergency rental assistance related to the covid-19 pandemic. The county will partner with Fayetteville Housing Authority and Hark, a nonprofit community foundation, to make the money available to aid people who have been unable to keep up with rent payments due to the pandemic.

Source: Washington County