The Douglas County Board will allocate an additional $2 million for utility bill assistance, plus $2 million to aid certain types of for-profit businesses hurt by the pandemic.
The board approved the measures Tuesday. The money will come from county budget reserves generated by 2020 federal coronavirus relief funding. The board postponed decisions on proposals to allocate additional money for rent and food assistance and mental health services.
It’s unclear exactly which businesses will qualify for the $2 million, or how much the grants will be. The resolution, proposed by County Board member Jim Cavanaugh, calls for the money to be distributed “to locally owned small businesses in Douglas County in the food, beverage, entertainment and hospitality industries, that have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The county will give the money to the Omaha Community Foundation and pay the foundation to distribute it. Cavanaugh said the money is desperately needed by struggling businesses. He said the $2 million would be just the start of aiding such businesses and that it would be targeted to “little restaurants that are for-profit mom-and-pops in our community.”
Mike Boyle, Maureen Boyle, and Mike Friend joined Cavanaugh in voting for the aid. Mary Ann Borgeson and Chris Rodgers voted no, and P.J. Morgan abstained.
“I think we’re opening a Pandora’s box on this and giving wrong hope for business,” Borgeson said. “We are picking and choosing an industry, when I have been contacted by many other industries in this county for help. And I have directed them to the state, or just flat out said the county has taken a position that we are not going to fund businesses because there’s not enough money in our pocket to do it.”
The $2 million for utility assistance will be given to the Dollar Energy Fund to distribute to Douglas County residents who are struggling to pay bills to Metropolitan Utilities District and Omaha Public Power District.
The board postponed for two weeks a decision on Mike Boyle’s proposal to give $2 million to the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless to distribute as rent assistance.
In 2020, Douglas County had distributed only $7.7 million of $10 million in CARES Act money that it allocated for rent assistance for people affected by COVID. Many of the people who did not receive assistance could not meet stringent federal requirements for documenting that they couldn’t pay their rent due to income loss because of the pandemic. The unspent money went into the county’s general fund, and so could be distributed now without those stringent requirements.
County officials are waiting to find out more information about new federal relief dollars from legislation approved last month. Nebraska is expected to receive $200 million for rent and utility help, with about $20 million going to Douglas County, officials said. The restrictions on the new federal rent assistance are expected to be similar to those of 2020.
Also Tuesday, the board rejected Mike Boyle’s move to rescind its controversial decision in December to allocate an additional $10 million to county justice center construction. The now-$130 million plan calls for building a courthouse annex and juvenile detention center.