Crow Wing County Board to consider use of federal relief funds

Commissioners are set to vote on authorizing Houle to execute the first phase of the program during their Tuesday, Oct. 26, meeting.

Tyler Glynn, executive director of the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp., speaks to commissioners Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, during their committee of the whole meeting. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins

Commissioners will soon decide how Crow Wing County will use the first half of $12.6 million in federal coronavirus relief funds awarded as part of the American Rescue Plan Act.

The Crow Wing County Board heard a staff proposal Tuesday, Oct. 19, including five spending priorities for the $6.3 million: helping to alleviate day care shortages, bolstering spending on expanding broadband access and infrastructure including sewer and water, internal Crow Wing County department needs, county government capital improvements and funds to ensure the future independence of the Family Services Collaborative of the Lakes Area.

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County Administrator Tim Houle presented the proposed program, adding the decisions on allocating the funds are ultimately up to the county board, provided spending aligns with guidance from the federal government. Finance Director Nick Mielke told commissioners language in the law passed by Congress authorizing the relief funds for local governments stated those dollars could be spent on public health, addressing negative economic impacts, offering premium pay for essential workers, governmental revenue loss or broadband, sewer or water infrastructure projects.

Commissioners are set to vote on authorizing Houle to execute the first phase of the program during their Tuesday, Oct. 26, meeting.


Day care shortage

A grant application process to alleviate shortages of available day care slots in Crow Wing County was the first suggested use of funds offered by Houle, totaling $500,000.

“We believe day care right now is one of the limits that we’re experiencing to economic growth,” Houle said. “Historically, we’d be chasing smokestacks, but right now, we’re chasing people. And you can see that by driving down Washington Avenue and looking at the ‘Help Wanted’ signs. So day care is one of the things that we’re hearing is an issue for people trying to get into the workplace.”

Tyler Glynn, executive director of the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp., told commissioners a recent study surveying employers, parents and day care providers in the county revealed a need for at least 1,200 more slots for children to receive care.

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He noted two projects currently in the works could result in expanded capacity. Brainerd Family YMCA has a purchase agreement to buy a building in downtown Brainerd for a dedicated child care center with up to 85 more slots and is in the process of securing funds. Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby is working with the Crosby-Ironton School District to establish 24/7 child care with as many as 75 children set to be served. Both can help make a dent, Glynn noted, but do not come close to bridging the gap.

Staffing shortages extend to child care centers themselves, Glynn pointed out, and capacity alone doesn’t solve the problems. That’s why the Initiative Foundation in Little Falls is working with Central Lakes College to create a tuition incentive program to encourage people to participate in an eight-month program to pursue careers in child care.

“I look at this as, it’s one step in the right direction, and I think we can really make an impact here if we put some resources toward this. … With some of this funding, we can help with the licensing, help with the startup costs,” Glynn said. “We still need bodies, just like everything else. This is a great step in the right direction, utilizing these funds.”

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Soliciting proposals from internet service providers and the three sanitary sewer districts in the county was the next suggested element of a program to distribute the federal relief dollars. Houle suggested $1 million be set aside for this purpose, with applicants agreeing to fund at least 20% of the cost of their proposed projects. And depending on the location of the infrastructure, Houle noted collaborating with township governments to tap some of their federal funds may help stretch the dollars further.


Crow Wing County previously granted some of its allocation from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, to CTC for a broadband expansion project, which county officials said would help support an increasing reliance on telework, distance learning or telemedicine.

Internal county government use

Houle outlined two potential uses of federal funds for internal county government use: permitting leaders of each department to pitch various proposals that may fall under allowable uses for the funds, and identifying projects on the county’s capital improvement plan that could utilize those funds instead of county property tax levy dollars. Houle recommended setting aside $1.5 million for departmental use, and left the capital improvements portion open-ended.

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Houle offered the idea of using dollars to expand services for mental health treatment as an example, noting the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on mental illness would likely be an easy argument to make.

“I think we can be very creative here to see how can we make the best long-term use of these resources,” Houle said.

Depending on the number of items commissioners deem appropriate uses of the American Rescue Plan Act dollars, the final property tax levy may be reduced from the preliminary levy approved in September. But Houle cautioned commissioners about cutting back the allotment for the capital improvement plan, noting it may be a better strategy to direct those levy dollars toward the county’s capital improvement fund balance for future use.

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Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson said there is more specific guidance with this round of federal funding than with the dollars distributed with the CARES Act. This ultimately makes the use of funds more restrictive, but also eliminates some of the guesswork associated with the first round. Houle noted the U.S. Treasury Department recently stated spending decisions made under the current interim rules would be permitted, even if the final rules result in changes. An audit of the county’s spending with CARES Act dollars found no issues, Houle said, which gives him confidence headed into this round of funding.

Family Services Collaborative

The final element staff is proposing for the relief program is to solicit a grant request from the Family Services Collaborative of the Lakes Area. The collaborative was originally a joint effort between school districts, the federal government and county governments to draw down federal resources for various child social work programs.

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“While there are many local organizations that address a specific need of a child, the FSC’s collaborative model takes a holistic approach that more comprehensively improves the interconnected challenges that a child or family face,” the organization’s website states. “We provide group and individual skills training directly to children and families; assist in crisis situations; as well as work closely with school staff to connect children and families with resources and strategies that help meet their needs. Our team is available year-round and all of our services are free to youth and families.”


But other federal resources are slowly drying up, Houle told commissioners, and the American Rescue Plan Act dollars provide an opportunity to give the organization independence from governmental reliance.

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No maximum dollar amount was associated with this proposal, but the collaborative would be asked to offer a figure that would assure their independence.

“It would help make them sustainable over the long term, so we wouldn’t have to contribute,” Houle said.

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or . Follow on Twitter at .
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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