Local News

Whiteside County makes plans for spending its COVID millions

Courthouse upgrades, expansion of broadband are top priorities

MORRISON – Whiteside County has decided what to do with the $10.7 million it received in COVID-19 relief money from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The board agreed to put $5 million aside for county projects, to devote $3 million to help bring broadband to underserved rural areas, and to provide $2 million in grants directly to businesses, nonprofits and individuals, including farmers, who qualify.

Only about half of the total funding is in hand, but officials expect the rest of the money to arrive within the next few months, county Administrator Joel Horn said.

Separately, the Whiteside County Health Department was allocated a little over $9 million in COVID-19 grants from a variety of state and federal sources; all but $1.6 million is in hand.

County projects: $5 million

Of the $5 million designated for county projects, $950,000 already is earmarked, including $200,000 to help pay for a new surveillance system for the complex that includes the courthouse, jail and sheriff’s department.

That’s slightly less than half of the approved cost of up to $410,000 for the system. The rest of the money needed was included in the sheriff department’s budget.

The $750,000 left primarily is being used to upgrade audiovisual technology in the courtrooms and boardrooms, in large part to facilitate remote hearings and proceedings, Horn said

Other than that, no decisions have been made on how the county will spend the remaining $4 million, but options include using some of it to remodel and replace HVAC at the Whiteside County Health Department Community Health Clinic in Rock Falls, and remodeling work at the courthouse in Morrison, including adding barriers in offices that deal with the public.

Broadband expansion: $3 million

The county is in the beginning stages of planning where and how to bring high-speed internet to rural areas in need, Horn said.

To that end, the state announced Tuesday that Whiteside County is among six counties or communities that applied for and was chosen to participate in the Accelerate Illinois Broadband Infrastructure Program.

It’s a 14-week intensive training program that will help officials develop broadband plans “responsive to their unique local needs and position them to effectively leverage newly available state and federal broadband infrastructure funding,” it said in a news release.

In December, Whiteside County established the Whiteside County Accelerate Steering team, which is working with other area agencies on broadband planning and development.

It soon will be rolling out a survey as part of Accelerate Illinois asking residents for help determining exactly which parts of the county should be targeted.

The state does have maps of areas in need, but they are not as accurate as they could be, and so residents will be strongly encouraged to fill out the survey, Horn said.

The county’s $3 million in COVID-19 relief funds is a drop in the bucket when it comes to the total cost to install internet or upgrade its broadband capabilities, so that money will be used to leverage more money, in the form of matching grants, Horn said.

The whole process of working with the state and area partner agencies to stitch together a cohesive system is very involved, Horn said, but “hopefully at the end of the day we move forward with a plan to provide high-speed internet to all underserved areas of the county.”

Business/individual grants: $2 million

The county also is in the process of putting applications online for individuals, businesses and nonprofits that can demonstrate the impact COVID-19 has had on their operations, and the plans, called projects on the application, that they have to recover.

The applications should be available on the county’s website sometime next week, Horn said.

The county is hiring the accounting firm Wipfli, which will verify an applicant’s eligibility.

County officials then will set up a conference to discuss the applicant’s project and any federal reporting requirements the applicant needs to meet.

Once those steps are done, the project will be presented to the county board for approval.

To qualify:

Grants will be available to people or businesses either physically in Whiteside County or whose services directly benefit county residents.

They must have fewer than 500 employees and have been in operation in the county since at least Feb. 15, 2020. They cannot be in default with the IRS, the state or the county, or in bankruptcy.

They will be asked to demonstrate the significant expenses or disruptions caused by COVID-19.

Preference will be given to businesses that were greatly impacted by the pandemic, such as bars and restaurants, retail shops, entertainment or performing arts outlets, and indoor recreation or health and fitness providers.

The applicant determines the amount of money needed; the county will have the final say in how much is granted.

There are federal rules dictating what the money can and can’t be used for.

For example, a grant can’t simply be used to replenish cash reserves; there must be a detailed plan submitted outlining how an applicant will use the money to help recover COVID-related losses.

“That’s why we’re engaging with Wiplfi, to assess the eligibility of each project,” Horn said.

There is no stipulation on the amount an applicant can request.

“What do you need to recover? You know better than me what your business needs,” he said

Horn is not sure how long the money will last. The businesses has until the end of December 2024 to incur eligible costs, and there’s a 2-year timeline, set by the federal government, to apply.

“We have until the end of 2024 to obligate the funds (or until all $2 million is accounted for), and until the end of 2026 to spend them all.”

He’s already received inquiries from about 10 businesses, Horn said.

Those interested in applying can go to https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/cares/state-and-local-governments for more information on the federal rules and regulations.

County CARES Act funding

The county also received $823,823 in funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, all but about $10,000 of which was spent on first responder pay, Horn said.

The rest paid for PPE, disinfectant, Zoom subscriptions, etc., he said.

Whiteside County Health Department

The $9,080,525 the Health Department has garnered came from many sources. While the bulk was from the ARPA and CARES Act, some also came from the Illinois Department of Public Health and even a small grant, $50,000, from the Illinois Children’s Health Care Foundation.

More than $4.3 million was CARES Act funding, the bulk of which was used on personnel, supplies, and equipment, and on expanding the departments ability to test, monitor and suppress COVID-19.

In addition, nearly $312,000 was used to buy a mobile health care van, used in large part to bring vaccines to people at various sites around the county.

Of the $3.4 million in ARPA money, more than $2.7 million was designated for personnel expenses, and $645,000 for clinic expansion.

The IDPH kicked in more than $850,000, which was used for vaccinations and virus prevention efforts.

That $50,000 foundation grant was used to buy dental equipment and supplies.

Kathleen Schultz

Kathleen A. Schultz

Kathleen Schultz is a Sterling native with 40 years of reporting and editing experience in Arizona, California, Montana and Illinois.