The Arkansas CARES Act Steering Committee approved on Wednesday the spending of over $211 million in federal aid to go towards establishing or maintaining multiple programs in the state.
The committee, which determines how federal coronavirus aid is spent in the state, approved the spending of $211,225,000, with $150 million of that approved funding to be split between the Arkansas Municipal League and the Association of Arkansas Counties.
According to the joint proposal submitted by both agencies, each entity would receive $75 million which would then be allocated to each city and county in the state through the use of formulas.
Chris Villines, executive director for the Association of Arkansas Counties spoke on the proposal during the meeting.
"We’re very careful not to ask for more money than we think cities and counties should get out of this. There should be no unjust enrichment for local government. There should simply be a recompense for those costs that are allowable under the cares act that we can turn in and get some reimbursement for," Villines said.
According to the proposal, the Arkansas Municipal League plans to use a per capita model, where more populous cities receive more funding, while the Association of Arkansas Counties "has a working model based on total public safety budgets, by county, as a percentage of the total county public safety budget in Arkansas."
According to Villines because of the limited time frame to distribute the funds, the agencies decided to shorten the three-phase process so that any money not used by cities and counties can return to the state more quickly.
Under the steering committee, items that are pre-approved for purchase by counties that would receive reimbursement include personal protective equipment such as masks, face shields, gloves and thermometers. Equipment purchased due to the coronavirus pandemic, but not on the list must be submitted to the committee for a reimbursement.
The committee approved the spending of $8 million to the state Department of Commerce to provide the necessary 25% state match for the federal Lost Wages Assistance Program that will give $300 weekly to qualified Arkansans as well as $2,800,000 for a continued contract with Maximus, who operates additional call lines for the state’s unemployment insurance hotline.
Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston spoke on the need for the additional call center.
"Obviously we’ve seen the need continuing with this extended program. These are the folks who are on the front lines answering these calls. This contract would take us through the end of the year with this call center," Preston said.
Another approved item is the establishment of the Business Interruption Grant program at $50 million, which is a collaboration between the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Finance and Administration.
Stacy Hurst, Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, spoke on the financial hits the travel and hospitality sectors have taken due to the pandemic
"Our 2% tourism tax that we collect at Arkansas Tourism, which is an indicator of travel within the state is down 35% this calendar year and that includes a record setting month in February that saw 24% growth year over year. So we are really struggling in this arena," Hurst said.
According to the proposal, in order to qualify for the grant, businesses must meet a list of requirements including: being located in Arkansas, having 250 or fewer employees and will have to report all prior COVID-19 assistance received from state and federal grants.
Another listed criteria for the grant is for the applicant to "provide financial data for a specified period for the past three years." Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock, asked Hurst if that meant businesses younger than three years would not qualify for funding.
"I just want some commitment that we’re not going to disqualify businesses that haven’t been in existence three years because that’s the way the proposal reads now. Which I don’t think anybody on the committee would want to do that. If you’d been in business two years and somehow you don’t qualify for the grant program. That just doesn’t seem fair to me," Bond said.
While not making a clear commitment, Hurst did say the current listed requirements were not finalized.
"This isn’t the last conversation we’ll have about it, Senator Bond. We’ll have to bring rules in front of the legislature so yes, we hope, I think we’ll be able to accommodate that," Hurst said.
The committee also approved the spending of $425,000 to go towards child advocacy centers under the Department of Human Services.
One item that the committee decided to table instead of passing is a proposal from the Arkansas Department of Health, with one part including the establishment of mobile health units that would increase testing in the state.
ShaRhonda Love, Minority Health Commission Director for the Arkansas Department of Health, spoke on the proposal.
"Those who normally may not receive access to services at a clinic or at a local health unit, nor may not have access to get to a clinic to a local health unit. So the utilization of these funds would be able to reach all corners of the state, providing access to minority populations, but serving anyone who would normally lack access," Love said.
The proposal, which totals around $6,592,050, lists testing kits for 45 days as the highest cost of the agenda with a cost of $2,970,000. The cost of the mobile health units for a 90-day period would be $364,050. Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, questioned the need to fund more testing equipment.
"We are doing testing events at all of our county health units. And we are doing pop-up testing there. So how frequently are we doing those, and those are all 75 counties," Irvin said.
Love responded that while testing is being provided at the county level, not everyone has the ability to get to a local health unit.
"Mobile health units provide access at the city level as well going actually into cities where the local health unit may not necessarily be located. I think this proposal specifically focuses on minorities statewide. And there has not been a prior proposal and or focus to provide access to minority participants who may not have previously received access," Love said.
Ultimately the committee decided to postpone approving the proposal, with the Department of Health agreeing to recalculate some of the costs.