Buncombe seeks input on $900K in COVID-19 spending

Buncombe County administration building
GRANTING DESIRES: To qualify for a federal COVID-19 relief grant of up to $900,000, Buncombe County must develop a detailed plan for spending that money with public input. Photo by Arianna Moore

The federal government is ready to write a $900,000 check to Buncombe County — as soon as county officials can figure out how they want to spend it.

As explained during a Sept. 15 meeting of the Board of Commissioners by Rachael Nygaard, the county’s director of strategic partnerships, the federal government authorized $27.5 million in community development block grants across North Carolina through the coronavirus relief package signed into law March 27. But to get its share of the funds, Buncombe must submit a detailed application to the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Rural Economic Development Division; the money isn’t expected to hit the county’s budget until January at the earliest.

Federal guidelines, Nygaard said, require the money to be spent outside of Asheville’s city limits and on “activities that prepare, prevent or respond to the health and economic impacts of COVID-19.” Heather Holsey, a county grant writer, added that funds must also serve low- to moderate-income individuals, eliminate “slum and blight” or meet an urgent community need.

Although no county residents spoke during the public hearing that followed Nygaard’s presentation, she urged those interested in offering guidance to weigh in as soon as possible, noting that the state would distribute money to cities and counties on a first-come, first-served basis. She invited comment by email to rachael.nygaard@buncombecounty.org, phone at 828-250-6536, or mail to 200 College St.

Following the public hearing, board Chair Brownie Newman shared his own priorities for the grant, referencing earlier discussions around the county’s pending evictions crisis. “If people are becoming homeless because they’ve lost their jobs and there’s no more federal support … I would list that as a No. 1 priority, if the resources that are already going to be there are going to be insufficient to address the need,” he said. “I’d probably put hunger at No. 2.”

Commissioner Joe Belcher asked how the funds might be used to assist small businesses, which in turn could maintain employees’ ability to pay for housing and food. Nygaard responded that business grants were a challenge under the federal rules but that support might be available for companies to rehire low- or moderate-income workers.

And Commissioner Anthony Penland asked if county staff could accelerate its timeline for putting together the grant application. Due to the complexities of federal regulation, Nygaard had said, submitting the paperwork by Tuesday, Oct. 20, was “the most assertive time frame that we feel like we can commit to.”

“What I’m hearing is, the sooner the better our chances,” Penland said about the application. “No matter how we help, we know it can help.”

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Assistant Editor of Mountain Xpress, regularly contributing to coverage of Western North Carolina's government, environment and health care. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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