City officials continue to struggle with their task of giving away state funds aimed at helping struggling business owners through COVID-19.
The Vincennes Revolving Loan Fund Committee on Wednesday morning met and approved another five applications from area businesses; those applications totaled $14,000, bringing the total given out so far in mini-grants to $96,000.
They have an eye-opening $154,000 left to spend.
“And I don’t know if we’re going to get more applications,” said Mayor Joe Yochum, also a member of the RLF committee, in exasperation.
“So what do we do? Do we allow those who have already applied to apply again?”
Vincennes and Knox County in May each received a $250,000 grant from the state Office of Community and Rural Affairs’ now revamped Community Development Block Grant Program, money meant for businesses struggling after the COVID-19 shutdown stifled their revenue.
Depending on the number of employees a business has, it can be eligible for anywhere from $2,000 up to $10,000 under the city’s program.
The county set up a slightly different system, one with only two payment tiers; businesses with fewer than 25 employees are eligible for $5,000. Those with more can get $10,000.
Both the city and the county have been working with the Loogootee-based Southern Indiana Development Commission in taking applications and awarding the mini-grants.
The city RLF committee looked to SIDC’s Matt Sward again on Wednesday as they struggle to spend the money they have left.
RLF member Craig Kirk called the whole process “a little disappointing.”
“We have $154,000 still out there and yet we can’t get enough interest from people,” he said.
Sward said OCRA, too, has been surprised by the lack of interest in the mini-grants in some Hoosier communities. The process, perhaps, was rushed, Sward said, and business owners didn’t quite understand what they were getting into.
Many, too, thought free money simply too good to be true while others were scared off by what they thought was a complicated application process or providing financial details of their business.
Or, perhaps, Sward said, the state overestimated the need.
Regardless, Sward has worked to help simplify the process both for the government entities trying to give their share of the money away and for business owners confused about the process. It’s really not all that complicated, he says, and financial information is kept completely confidential, just as it would be in a traditional loan process at a financial institution.
But there are other options, too, he said.
OCRA left it up to the individual communities as to how they wanted to divvy out the money.
Some, Sward said, simply took one round of applicants and divided the $250,000 between them, although he applauded both the city and county’s decision to select a tiered approach, thereby distributing the money more evenly.
That said, the city can change its approach this late in the game, he said; they can change the tiers, thereby increasing the amount awarded per employee.
The city, too, Sward said, could invite businesses that have already applied to come back for more money, even if it’s only closing the gap between what they got the first time verses what they would get if the tiered system was changed.
And they wouldn’t have to go through the application process all over again.
“I reached out to OCRA just to be sure, and they said, ‘We have no issue with Vincennes changing their tiers. Please move forward,’ ” Sward told the committee.
But Cheryl Hacker, assistant to Mayor Joe Yochum, said she did have a few other first-time applicants hanging in the balance.
“I had a few more pick up applications last week,” Hacker told the committee. “But those haven’t been returned yet.”
Committee member Greg Cardinal suggested they do one more round — a fourth — and then look at either changing the tiered system or encouraging previous applicants to apply again.
“I say we give it another month, though,” he said. “See what happens.”
And the city does have time, Sward said.
Initially, OCRA wanted the money spent in just six months. Now, he said, the money must spent by May 2021.
And he encouraged any business owner out there with concerns or questions to contact Hacker at 812-882-7285 for help.
“This money is here to help businesses,” Sward said matter-of-factly. “So if you have questions or concerns, contact someone. Explain why you’re not putting something out there.
“Let us help you.”
The county commissioners are still accepting applications as part of a third round, Sward said Wednesday.
Last month, they approved nine applications totaling gifts of nearly $40,000. Like the city, they’ve awarded about $100,000 so far.
During the first round, they awarded 11 applications for a total of $57,000.
Per state guidelines, though, more than half — or 51% — of the applicants’ collective employees need to meet federal low-to-moderate income guidelines.
The city has been able to remain under that threshold with no trouble while the county, Sward has said, his hovering pretty close to it.
For more information on the county’s process, see the application on the county’s website at www.knoxcounty.in.gov.
Officials with the South Knox School Corp. on Tuesday took another step in finalizing a $15.8 million spending plan for 2021.
School board members held a brief public hearing for the proposed budget, which superintendent Tim Grove said could come with a tax rate increase of about 50 cents over last year. But, he says, that’s doubtful.
“It all depends on the assessed valuation of property in the district,” Grove said, adding that he’s anticipating only a slight tax rate increase for residents and not the full 50 cents.
In 2018 Grove estimated a 57-cent rate increase over the previous year, but it ended up being just 19 cents.
And the same is possible for this year.
School superintendents typically aim high when building their spending plans, preferring to reduce later rather than attempt to add monies.
At a time when public education is often asked to do more with less, school officials across the county are concerned that the economic impact of COVID-19 could do further damage in years to come, very likely leading to significant state funding cuts in 2022 and beyond.
However, says Grove, the upcoming year’s $15.8 million budget plan — if approved — would fund all of the district’s needs for the next academic year — everything from education and operations to a rainy day fund, should the school need to tap into it.
Currently the South Knox School District tax rate is at 1.26%Adoption of the 2021 school budget is slated for the next board of trustees meeting on Oct. 13.
Grove also reported the district currently has only one active case of COVID-19 and says he’s pleased with the way students and staff have responded to the new normal so far this school year.
“Everyone seems to have a pretty good attitude about the new rules, and it seems we’ve settled in to a routine,” he said.
Grove says that considering the surge of coronavirus cases in the county over the past several weeks, things are going as well as can be expected.
He credits a good working relationship between county health officer, Dr. Alan Stewart, officials at Good Samaritan Hospital, and an open line of communication between school leaders across the county for the relatively successful beginning to the school year.
“I think we’re doing as well as can be expected,” he said. “We have good open communication between our schools. We have a good thing going — all four of our school systems.”
Though the superintendent reveals he is “anxious about another flare up” of COVID-19 cases in the coming days, as a result of Labor Day weekend gatherings, for now he and others are just happy to be back in school.
“Masks may be uncomfortable,” he said, “but everyone understands that this is what we can do to stay in school.”
After an 8-week delay, crews with Kerns Excavating, Bicknell, are expected to mobilize today and begin the city’s long-awaited and final levee update in order to see the earthen structure remain in good standing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Kirk Bouchie, general manager of Vincennes Water Utilities on Wednesday said to members of the Utilities Service Board that it was “disappointing” they hadn’t gotten further on the project to replace some 50-year-old seepage relief wells along the Wabash River Levee near Vincennes University, but it was through no fault of Kerns — or really anyone’s, for that matter.
“There’s just been a lot of coordination necessary between CSX Railroad and Wabash Steel,” Bouchie explained. “I describe it all the time as threading a needle.
“It’s just been a difficult area (in which) to coordinate a project like this,” he told the board.
The USB in July awarded the $1.3 million contract to Kerns.
But the project, one more than a year in the making, requires coordination between the contractor, CSX Railroad and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among others; it’s been the coordination between CSX Railroad and Wabash Steel that has proven the most difficult to navigate.
As part of a recent deal struck with the two, Wabash Steel will receive no more shipments via rail line between now and Jan. 1, 2021.
“We need that time to work on that northern-most section of this project,” Bouchie told the board. “That’s a critical path right through there, and we work close to the rails. So those tracks will need to be locked — not used by anybody.
“We can’t work within 25 feet of those tracks when they’re in service even though they only serve that one customer (Wabash Steel).”
But with that deal now in place, Kerns can finally move forward, Bouchie said.
“And our current schedule still allows us to be complete — at least with the portion that is so critically important, the part that allows for a positive evaluation from the corps of engineering to FEMA, by the end of the year.
“We feel good that we can get that done even with an 8-week delay.”
The replacement of the seepage relief wells is the last major project required before the levee will finally be re-certified by FEMA and added to the existing flood maps, bringing an end to a years-long, now $9 million effort.
The project is being paid for by a handful of local entities, specifically VU, the utility itself, Knox County Development Corp. and the Vincennes Redevelopment Commission.
The current relief wells were installed in the 1950s, and are long past their lifespan. The wells essentially allow groundwater from the levee to be captured and drained back into the river, all in an effort to be sure the levee remains stable.
Bouchie also told the board that, so far, more than $560,000 has been spent on this project, “and that’s without one piece of pipe in the ground yet.”
“So that tells you just how much of a needle we’re threading here,” he said.
Bouchie also told the board Wednesday that the utility is doing “so far so good” in terms of COVID-19.
The utility reopened its main office on Busseron Street to the public earlier this summer and they’ve been “very careful” in their interactions with customers since.
“Just like we’re sitting here in this room with masks on and spread out as much as we can,” he said of the board, which met at the new drinking water facility on River Road.
Bouchie said “to his knowledge” no utility employee has either tested positive for the virus or become ill, but they have had some placed in quarantine due to possible exposure.
He said they are being “very generous” in allowing people to stay home until they’ve been cleared to return.
“And we’ve never had a huge bunch at once,” he said. “We’ve just worked through it.”
Bouchie also said he has submitted to city officials purchases in excess of $41,000 — for things like Personal Protective Equipment and the addition of an air-conditioning unit in a large meeting space at the drinking water plant where group meetings can be held during the pandemic — for reimbursement by the city’s portion of federal CARES Act funds.