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County approves Covid grants

A total of 54 local small businesses and nonprofit organizations were approved to receive the latest round of Carlton County grants, courtesy of Covid-19 county relief money provided by the State of Minnesota Legislature. In total, the grants add up to $691,466. The Carlton County board of commissioners approved 54 out of 71 applications on Tuesday, as recommended by the CARES Act committee and a grant application review committee. All grants must be awarded by March 15 and the funds distributed by April 1, pending some final compliance verifications.

The legislative intent was to customize grants based on impact/loss and need. The focus of this round of awards was on businesses that fell through the cracks in earlier CARES Act and Department of Revenue distributions, or those that needed more financial help.

Nonprofits that did not depend on a business operation for income and which received grants in the first round of funding were not awarded money at this time. A local VFW that runs a bar to fund their organization, for example, was eligible this round. Both the Carlton and Cloquet VFW posts received funding: Cloquet for $18,000, and Carlton $19,000.

Eighteen bars and restaurants received grants, with dollar amounts varying widely for the businesses at first, then only those that have faced many challenges during the pandemic, from the initial shutdown to later mandates limiting indoor drinking and dining. Some of the higher-amount grants went to recipients including Jim N’ Jo’s Katering ($28,000), Carmen’s Bar & Restaurant ($23,000), The River Inn ($23,000), Chef Butcher Foods (aka Marketplace Meats) ($22,000); Rob’s Mahtowa Tavern ($21,000); Family Tradition Restaurant ($20,000); Lumberjack Lounge ($20,000); Hong Kong Restaurant ($19,000);

The Lounge on Big Lake Shores ($18,000). Other restaurant/bar grants ranged from $15,000 (Redneck Meats BBQ, Rendezvous Sports Bar & Grill) down to $4,000 (Trapper Pete’s Steakhouse & Saloon).

Other business forced to close or severely curtail activities also got help in this round, including entertainment venues such as Premiere Theatres in Cloquet ($30,000), Lake Theatre in Moose Lake ($4,000), County Seat Theater ($15,000) and Oldenburg House ($5,000). Businesses such as dress shops and photography studios — affected by weddings and formal dance cancellations — a dentist, hotels, motels and campgrounds, golf clubs and many other small businesses were also included.

The application review group included county board chair Marv Bodie, Mary Finnegan and Brenda Nyberg of the county Economic Development Authority, and EDA member Larry Peterson, president of First National Bank of Moose Lake.

With Congress passing a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill Wednesday and President Biden expected to sign it soon, there’s a good chance Carlton County businesses and nonprofits may be able to apply for more grants.

“Assuming that is the intent of some of the money, then we would anticipate another round of grants,” Nyberg said, suggesting that people watch the county website and the newspaper for that announcement.

A previous round of CARES Act business grants totaling $369,000 — with a maximum amount of $7,500 per business — was awarded by the county in December.

Jail funding

The Minnesota House of Representatives Tax Committee is holding hearings on local governments that want to raise funds for local projects using the local sales tax option. The Carlton County Board gave Economic Development director Mary Finnegan permission to request a half-percent sales tax authority for 30 years to raise $60 million for a new jail complex adjacent to the Carlton County Courthouse. The authority to levy the sales tax ends when the jail proposal bonding is paid for.

This doesn’t mean that the project is going to cost $60 million, but instead makes sure enough funds are available for whatever the plan for a jail chosen does cost. The local voters of Carlton County must vote on the levying of the half-percent sales tax before it becomes a reality. The jail construction would otherwise be paid for by a property tax levy increase. The Minnesota Department of Corrections says the current county jail can no longer house inmates by the summer of 2023.

In other matters:

The County Board approved a 1.75-percent salary increase for non-represented and confidential staff and a 1.75-percent increase for those county employees represented by two local union bargaining units. Labor negotiations continue for the current fiscal year as recommended by county coordinator Dennis Genereau and the negotiations team. Increases are to be paid from the first pay period in January of this 2021 budget year.

Commissioner Gary Peterson voted “no” on the labor settlement. “My goal has been since I was elected to the board to try to hold spending increases to a minimum,” he said in a phone interview after the meeting. “In this time of Covid-19, much of our local economy and the lives of our local citizens has been disrupted. People are hurting out there. We must look at every way we can keep the burden off the local property tax levy.”

-Zoning administrator Heather Cunningham presented her annual departmental report. A total of 55 new houses were built in the county, up from 45 the preceding year. In overall inspections of existing systems, failed septic system inspections fell from 17 percent to 10 percent. Overall, there was $14.5 million in new construction in 2020.

-Auditor/treasurer Kathy Korteum is retiring this year, she announced to the board. She asked that the job be posted to find a new person by May. After the new person is hired, Korteum will overlap her job duties to help smoothly transition the changes in staffing. Korteum was appointed to the position after longtime elected auditor/treasurer Paul Gassert resigned in May 2019.