A subcommittee of the East Grand Forks Economic Development Authority’s board did not decide lightly to delay a COVID-19 business relief program, City Attorney Ron Galstad told East Grand Forks City Council members, and subcommittee members had no intention of creating heartache or animosity.
But it nonetheless seemed to do exactly that: A handful of council members at a meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 12, were frustrated by the progress of a forgivable loan program to help East Grand Forks businesses that have been hampered by gubernatorial orders designed to slow the spread of a novel coronavirus.
“I think we need to do what we need to do to get this money out and help who needs to be helped,” Council President Mark Olstad said.
Council members voted last month to pay the city’s Economic Development Authority $260,000, which it was to loan to East Grand Forks-area businesses affected by Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders 20-99 and 20-10. Those orders closed bars and restaurants for indoor service and outright closed gyms and entertainment venues from Nov. 20 through Monday. The governor has since relaxed those restrictions -- restaurants can fill up to 50% of their maximum occupancy limit, for instance -- but businesses across Minnesota still face financial and logistical challenges.
Members of the development authority’s subcommittee agreed last week to see how a similar aid program administered by Polk County would shake out before recommending the finer points of the city-level program to the development authority board for formal approval. The idea, according to a Tuesday memo from Economic Director Paul Gorte to city leaders, was to determine the best use of the city funds to supplement the county grants. Galstad estimated that the city money could head to businesses by early March.
“March isn’t acceptable,” council member Marc DeMers said, noting that council members voted to dole out that money to get cash into business’ hands quickly. “It appears that these are manmade obstacles. ... Get (the loans) in these peoples’ hands now.”
The county grant program and the city loan program are separate, but both endeavor to get money to businesses that have struggled during the pandemic. The county money would go out as grants, but the city money would be “forgivable” loans that wouldn’t need to be paid back if the borrower met certain criteria, such as staying in town for a certain number of years or retaining a certain number of employees.
Mayor Steve Gander, who stressed in Tuesday’s meeting and in a subsequent call with the Herald that he recognized the development board’s authority and competence, presumed that any business that receives a county grant and a city loan could use the grant money to pay back some of the loan.
“There’s no reason to wait for a grant program to come to full fruition before you decide if you’re going to apply for a forgivable loan,” Gander said. “This can zoom ahead if it wants to, if there are no other obstacles, so they don’t really have to be coordinated.”
In related news, council members:
– Were briefed on the progress of the city’s upcoming 2050 land use plan, which would use population projections and other metrics, plus resident and civic official input, to outline where and how the city would expand and otherwise look 30 years from now. Project managers plan to host the first of at least two open houses later this month or next.
– Gave preliminary consideration to a proposal from Fire Chief Jeff Boushee that would raise the pay of paid on-call firefighters from $12 an hour to $14, and, in effect, pay them for at least two hours' worth of work regardless of the length of time they’re actually working. The city’s “POC” firefighters are something akin to reserves for the East Grand Forks Fire Department. When fire crews are dispatched to, say, a medical emergency in a nearby township, paid on-call firefighters take their place in the city proper in case a second emergency pops up. Boushee’s proposal aims to make those calls more worth the paid on-call workers’ time and attract more potential hires to the department. Council member Clarence Vetter said he was on board with the raise, but was skeptical of the two-hour minimum.