While money for municipalities from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) was aimed at reimbursing them for COVID-19-related expenses, a number of county localities tried using some of that reimbursement to ease the financial pain of residents suffering because of the pandemic.
With efforts varying from attempts to receive funds up front for resident assistance or $135,000 in indirect aid to businesses, to more than $100,000 in direct assistance to furloughed employees, municipalities and others made a financial and time commitment to help their residents and neighbors.
When restaurants and other hospitality businesses saw stricter capacity limits in December, weeks before Christmas, Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau president Jack Cohen wanted to pool together resources to help laid-off workers.
He said in December the goal was to get money to those workers before Christmas, helping them put food on the table and gifts under the tree.
Many throughout the county heeded the call to help their neighbors, including individual residents and nonprofits such as Rotary International clubs. Of the more than $100,000 raised for those workers, roughly two-thirds came from the county and municipalities.
“There were multiple municipalities that contributed maybe $20,000 or $30,000 to that,” said Mark Gordon, county chief of economic development and planning.
Gordon added the workers almost certainly wouldn't have been able to get an unemployment check in the 13 days between the Dec. 12 capacity limitation and Christmas.
'We Care' campaign
The end result of the “We Care” campaign was $100 gift cards for 1,000 furloughed workers. It was, for the roughly 10% of the county's 10,000 hospitality workers, at least something to put a dent in the financial pain.
For Cranberry Township, which along with Butler Township and the county contributed about $68,000 to the cause, it was an “easy” decision.
“We thought it was a great way to support that industry in a real time of need,” said Dan Santoro, township manager, who added the township has a sizable portion of the county's hospitality workers. “Our board was totally supportive of that action and willing to support those in need during the holidays.”
Gordon said such actions were permitted under the CARES Act because, even though the expenditures for which municipalities could be reimbursed were limited to those caused by the pandemic and the necessary function of government, the reimbursed funds, once they hit the municipalities' bank accounts, were fair game for any expense.
In Zelienople, borough officials chose to fight the war against COVID-19's economic impact on two fronts: A gift card to residents that could be used only at local businesses.
“We felt that the businesses in town really needed the boost because they hurt so much,” said Don Pepe, borough manager. “That was a no-brainer, that part of it. So we tried to figure out a way that would be a boost to the local economy as well as to the citizenry.”
The $50 gift cards, the brainchild of Councilman Gregg Semel, were a boon to local businesses.
“It wasn't just a benefit to the residents, it was a benefit to the businesses,” said Matthew Edwards, Zelienople Area Business Association president. “The residents had that extra $50, and they needed to turn around and spend that within the community as well. I can't think of a better way for them to have maximized that money other than by making it hit Zelienople twice.”
Edwards said the gift cards have been used at a “diverse group” of businesses, and called its impact “fantastic.”
Pepe said Zelienople is considering trying to extend the deadline by which the gift cards must be used — currently, they must be used by May 31 — because some people haven't wholly drained their cards or even used them at all.
He added while the original distribution of the gift cards, aided by the electric company's account rolls, was imperfect, the borough tried to make right regarding any missed residents, either by working with landlords to ensure tenants receive their cards or by issuing new ones.
After all, Pepe said, the goal was to help as many people and businesses as possible.
“I think it's had a great impact,” he said. “If it hasn't been a strong monetary impact, I think it's been a good psychological impact for people.”
Direct aid efforts
While some pushes to help residents or businesses were successful, other municipalities did not have as much luck.
Slippery Rock Township, for example, applied for its full allocation of CARES Act funding — $274,905 — in the first round, but received just $2,191.75 distributed by the county. That's because the township sought nearly $260,000 in funding for residents and the United Way, which were not eligible expenses under the CARES Act. Of the amount Slippery Rock Township asked for in aid to residents and the nonprofit, nearly all of that — $252,000 — was for helping residents pay mortgages, rent and utility bills. While Delta Development Group could point toward the county's nonprofit and small business grant program under the CARES Act for the United Way, there was no such provision under the law for the township's request for direct resident assistance.
Such expenses, however, would be permitted uses under the American Rescue Plan Act, the new stimulus package signed into law last month.
And while the proliferation of vaccines and some level of natural immunity has likely led the county out of the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, municipalities say they would be more than willing to help again if restrictions come back.
“If there was another cooperative effort across the county, it's certainly something we would look to participate in,” Santoro said. “Again, we would look to the county tourism folks to lead that effort and help us understand what's going on in that industry.”