Council adds $6M for COVID-19 relief efforts, says more is needed

Council adds $6M for COVID-19 relief efforts, says more is needed

Most funds will be used for individual, family grant program

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Montgomery County leaders decided to spend an additional $6 million to support struggling residents, businesses and nonprofits. But officials say it’s not enough and acknowledge that they might have to spend more.

Most of the funds, $5 million, will be added to the $5 million Emergency Assistance Relief Payment (EARP) program, making the total $10 million for the program. The grants will be distributed to individuals and families ineligible for federal and state aid and earn incomes less than 50% of the federal poverty level.

Of the additional money approved Thursday, $750,000 will be for food security and assistance and $250,000 for telework grants for businesses and nonprofits to help cover costs of having employees work remotely.

The EARP program will first provide grants to about 1,300 families accessing services through the county’s Care for Kids program. Each family with one child will receive one-time payments of $1,000. Each additional child in a family adds an extra $150, with a maximum grant of $1,450.

At a public hearing during the council’s virtual meeting on Thursday, Claudia Sacramento of CASA de Maryland, speaking through a Spanish interpreter, said that while the funds were welcome, not everyone who needs assistance would qualify. She asked the council to loosen requirements so more people could qualify.

Examples of household incomes that are 50% of the federal poverty level are $6,380 for a single adult and $10,860 for a family of three.

Council Member Nancy Navarro said at the meeting that there is a lot of confusion in the community over who is eligible for the funds. She said the income level requirement is too low.

“It is true that we do have some folks in our community who are at that level,” she said. “But the reality is, it’s very low. A lot of people are just not able to access this much-needed funding because they might make a little bit more than that. … This doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Dr. Raymond Crowel, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department, told the council the one-time payments are meant to help tide people over temporarily and does not exclude them from accessing other resources through the department.

“The challenge is that when you double the level of the amount that we can give to, the number of households we can support drops,” he said.

Navarro said her concern was the number of people who are struggling near the federal poverty level, but don’t qualify. She asked that the department consider modifying its approach to open up the funds to others more quickly.

Distributing the money in three phases will help give access to more people. The county and nonprofits will identify additional families and individuals eligible to receive the assistance during the second phase of the program. The third phase will open applications for people to submit a request for assistance.

The phases are expected to open before the end of May.

The $750,000 will go to the county’s Food Security Task Force, which will help families receive a steady, reliable supply of food.

Of the funds, $400,000 will support providers in the county; $300,000 will go to purchase ethnic and culturally appropriate food from ethnic grocery stores, to be distributed to areas with vulnerable residents; and $50,000 will be to design a long-term strategy that uses local food producers.

“It’s an opportunity for us to partner with multicultural members of our private sector who have wanted to but haven’t known exactly how to engage in public-private partnerships,” Council Member Gabe Albornoz said at the meeting.

Heather Bruskin, executive director of the Montgomery County Food Council, said the $50,000 for the strategic plan will increase access to multicultural and local food. It also will set up a system to find out vulnerable residents’ specific needs and desires for certain food.

The $250,000 telework grant program will provide up to $2,500 grants for local small businesses and nonprofits with no more than 100 employees.

The initial plan for the telework grants was for them to come out of the county’s $25 million Public Health Emergency Grant (PHEG) Program that is providing grants of up to $75,000 to small businesses and nonprofits.

The $25 million program requires applicants to demonstrate a 50% revenue loss in March. The council decided to create a separate telework fund to ensure that more applicants would be available for the mini grants.

Four representatives of local chambers of commerce — Greater Silver Spring, Greater Bethesda and Gaithersburg-Germantown, plus the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Montgomery County — spoke in support of the program Thursday during a public hearing. But they asked that the applications be open to all businesses and nonprofits and that a new application process be formed, separate from the PHEG Program.

Council Member Andrew Friedson said at the meeting that the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation will take over the telework grants and will create a new application process for them.

The draft program initially called for the grants to be awarded for technology purchases made by April 30. An amendment was made to the appropriation to extend the purchase date to June 1 to give more businesses and nonprofits a chance to take advantage of the grants.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.

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For other Bethesda Beat coverage of the coronavirus, click here.

To see a timeline of major coronavirus developments in Maryland and Montgomery County, click here.

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