TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Discussions continued last week over the intended structure of the Community Recovery Grant Program, a Tompkins County initiative that is aimed at distributing about $6.5 million to local businesses and organizations that have suffered under the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fueled by funds from the county’s fund balance, the grant program will have three tiered categories by dollar amounts: from $10K-$25K, from $25,001-$250,000 and from $250,001 and above. Respectively, those categories will be allotted $500,000, $1.5 million and $4 million. (Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the funds were from the American Relief Plan Act, but that is not the case. The funds are leftover from the county’s own fund balance. ARPA funds were used in full for county operations, according to legislator Deborah Dawson.)

The whole meeting of the Expanded Budget Committee from last week, detailed in this article, is here, while this week’s Tompkins County Legislature meeting can be viewed here. The full legislature further discussed the grant program. A full article on last night’s legislature meeting will be posted later today.

There are far more details that will need to be ironed out, some of which will be handled by whatever consultant is picked to help oversee the management and disbursement of the grant program. But it was clear from Monday’s meeting that legislature members are aware the grant program has been slow to get off the ground since its announcement in October and they want to keep forward momentum going.

But a large part of that will be designing a stable program to operate. Part of the discussion surrounded how to pick a consultant, how involved they should be.

“It’s accountability to us, it’s not accountability to ARPA funds or those regulations, this is purely to make sure that it’s administered how we would administer a grant program, but having a surrogate for that program and not having it be a county employee,” said new legislator Greg Mezey during the meeting. “I don’t want there to be confusion that there’s another entity that’s supervising or overseeing the regulations other than good governmental practices.”

As for the compliance aspect, interim Tompkins County Adminstrator Lisa Holmes clarified that there would be rules for how the funds are disbursed since they are coming from tax payers, and from the federal government.

“They’re public funds, so the bottom line is that they are from the tax payers and need to be put toward public use,” Holmes said, noting that the consultants, finance departments and the County Attorney would all be involved in the compliance oversight. “Through the Office of the State Comptroller, there are certain ways in which public funds can and must be used.”

Simplicity of the application process was an emphasis, particularly from Legislator Dan Klein, to the agreement of others. They mentioned that the consultant, whoever it may be, should be instructed to make simplicity a priority.

Some of the debate centered on the procedural, logistical aspects of the fund. Legislator Anne Koreman presented an initial idea of allocating certain portions of the total money to applications that are asking for money between a certain range. The results of that debate formed the aforementioned money groupings and allocations.

There were also talks that would have included staggering deadlines and disbursements for each group of applications, but other members felt that, at least the staggering portion, would slow down the process a bit too much.

“People have been talking for months to get this money out the door as quickly as possible,” Legislator Amanda Champion said. “I think we need to just do it all at once.”

Mezey joined in that critique, saying that it was “time to get the ball rolling” on distributing the funds. Fellow legislator Shawna Black also suggested keeping the process open-ended, avoiding money-groupings. A compromise was seemingly reached by avoiding intentionally staggering disbursements, but still setting up certain money ranges, with a commitment to spend at least 50 percent of each of the allocations.

“We just need to wait and see what comes in the door,” Deborah Dawson added. “Ultimately, it will be up to us to decide which grant proposal we’re going to reward.”

Another point emphasized by Rich John, and echoed by Dawson, was that if the applications are “crappy,” the county shouldn’t feel compelled to send out the money just because they have it allotted to spend—balancing that by saying the aforementioned 50 percent commitment would apply to “qualified” applications.

“If we have extra money at the end of the day, we can carry it over to next year or we can add it to a pot where it will do the most good,” Dawson said.

As mentioned, discussions will continue at the Expanded Budget Committee level before being solidified. Dawson acknowledged that, indicated by the three hour meeting last week, there was going to be an extraordinary amount of push-and-pull to formulating the program’s final form.

“We’re going to end up with a camel, but that’s okay as long as everybody is happy with some feature of the camel,” Dawson said.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com