County Manager Column from May 5, 2020

This column was originally published as a "From the County Manager" column on our employee intranet.

Supporting individuals, families, small businesses and job seekers using CARES funds

On April 22, Ramsey County received $96 million from the federal government through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. In Minnesota, the state received an allocation of $1.8 billion. Hennepin and Ramsey were the only Minnesota counties to receive direct allocations through the CARES Act because each has a population greater than 500,000.

These funds must be spent on COVID-19 relief efforts by Dec. 30, 2020 and can’t be used to cover lost revenue – such as from unpaid property taxes or lower sales tax receipts.

$96 million is a lot of money, but the hard truth is that expenses and needs directly resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic in Ramsey County will vastly outstrip this help alone. As the most diverse and densely populated Minnesota county with areas of concentrated poverty and many racial and ethnic communities struggling to access stable housing, secure employment and experience health and wellbeing, we know that Ramsey County has unique needs and an enormous challenge ahead of us. We know we need to spend and leverage every cent of this $96 million to renew our economy and build a community in which all are valued and thrive.

The good news is that foundational work we have been undertaking over the past number of years has positioned us very well to adjust and drive work forward most effectively. Beginning with the board’s leadership on developing crystal clear vision, mission and goals and following through to our strategic priorities, investments and commitment to racial equity and community engagement, as well as our strong tradition of fiscal stewardship and new compliance office, we are an organization with well-defined values, exceptional staff and aligned areas of focus and approach. Further, we have developed and fostered strong partnerships with community and business and other organizations to support one another. Together, this provides us with a North Star to which we can point all of our efforts. 

This morning, I was joined by CFO Alex Kotze, Financial Assistance Services Director Tina Curry, Workforce Solutions Director Ling Becker and Community & Economic Development Director Kari Collins to present our board of commissioners with a practical framework to wisely invest our CARES funds as expediently as possible. Generally, we proposed using $40 million to cover expenses incurred to date and nimbly address unforeseen expenses that we as a service provider must continue to address including public safety, direct care, public health and many other areas to meet the needs of the community. We also proposed rapidly investing the other $56 million to promptly support our community in three primary categories:

  • Housing, food and financial assistance for struggling individuals and families.
  • Resources for those who have lost their jobs or need help with employment.
  • Support for small businesses to stay open and adapt.

Watch the video of this morning’s board meeting 
CARES section starts at about 43:00

In the Financial Assistance Services area, Tina shared the plans that she and her team have developed to provide $15 million for emergency assistance (helping residents maintain housing and basic household needs), $10 million for food support to homebound individuals and families, and $1 million to hire temporary clerks to proactively contact clients and help them process documentation. Tina shared that throughout her long career in public service, she has never seen the level of need that Financial Assistance Services is now facing and that staff are seeing a significant number of first-time applicants for benefits.

For workforce assistance, Ling outlined plans to serve those who need the most help by expanding resources and connections. About $7 million in proposed investments seek to provide what Ling calls "tech equity" through expanded access to computers at service locations and co-training sites, online tools and virtual career coaching. Another $7 million is proposed to leverage relationships with community and civic partners to provide career counseling, training, mentorship and related programs in multiple languages to serve populations such as youth, young adults and unconnected job seekers. Ling underscored the point that the pre-COVID-19 economy has not worked for everyone equally, but our recovery can and must focus on closing gaps.            

To support small businesses – which are the backbone of our Ramsey County economy – Kari outlined plans to invest $15 million to help with relief and reopening. Grants of $7,500 will be available for microenterprises and firms with 10-20 employees to help them to keep operating – with a focus on minority- and women-owned businesses. Kari shared a story about a conversation she had with a property owner that was reviewing how physical businesses were laid out and working with professionals to redesign these spaces based on what we’ve learned through the COVID-19 pandemic. These are the kind of efforts that will be supported through reopening assistance.

More details about all aspects of this initial proposal are outlined in a memo which I sent to the board on May 4.

Read the May 4 memo

In the next couple of weeks, we’ll be seeking input on this proposal from cities, community members and more staff across our own organization before we bring it back to our commissioners for formal endorsement. We know we need to act fast to get these funds into the hands of those who need it most. I’d like to especially thank Finance, Financial Assistance Services, Workforce Solutions and Community & Economic Development for their amazing work pulling together these programs and plans in support of our community on a very tight timeline.

Going forward, we know that our organization must realign as necessary to fully support these departments that have already been working overtime to serve our residents and businesses in need. Effectively using this CARES funding will be an effort that will likely touch all of us in many ways that we can – and some ways that we can’t – anticipate. As always, I appreciate your dedication, hard work and flexibility as we navigate this situation together. Please stay healthy and safe. And I look forward to being in touch again with you soon.