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JPs reject call to use relief funds



FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Washington County officials Thursday rejected a proposal to allocate $3.6 million of the county’s $4.5 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money received for covid-19 costs.

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

Justice of the Peace Eva Madison sponsored a proposal to divide the $3.6 million to help small businesses, provide hunger relief, and give financial assistance to residents who have lost their homes or experienced financial difficulties related to homelessness or housing insecurity.

Madison said the county could contract with other agencies and nonprofit groups to administer the programs. The ordinance listed area chambers of commerce as partners for the small-business aid portion; food banks and other nonprofit food distribution services in Washington County to administer the hunger relief portion; and shelters or agencies to provide the housing assistance.

At Thursday’s meeting Madison said she wanted the ordinance to be a starting point for the county to discuss how best to use the money.

“When I proposed this ordinance I didn’t understand how helping people who are hungry, who are without housing, would be controversial,” Madison said. “The intent was to be a starting place for discussion.”

Madison said she’s open to alternative proposals but she thinks the money should be used for covid relief and not for other county needs.

“Why in the world should Washington County get to profit off a pandemic,” Madison said.

Justice of the Peace Patrick Deakins said the county will have costs related to the pandemic as the courts and other county offices open and shouldn’t rush to spend the money.

“I’m not sure the fiscal impact of the pandemic is behind us,” he said. “Our actions are not inaction, they’re caution. There are other costs out there.”

Benton County also received money — $3.8 million — under the CARES Act. Comptroller Brenda Peacock said that county had about $500,000 in out-of-pocket expenses related to the pandemic, including for personal protective equipment, shields for county offices open to the public and antibacterial fogging systems. Benton County’s Quorum Court has formed a committee to consider how to use that county’s CARES money.

Washington County Justice of the Peace Evelyn Rios Stafford said Washington County could follow Benton County’s example and form a committee to consider how to use the money.

County Judge Joseph Wood said Washington County should receive up to $46 million in additional covid-relief money from the recently approved American Rescue Plan. The county has also received about $7.1 million for housing relief.