Alaska communities plan how to get federal coronavirus aid out to struggling Alaskans

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Published: May. 27, 2020 at 6:54 PM AKDT
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Local communities across Alaska are busy planning how to spend $568 million in federal aid to help combat the effects of COVID-19.

For many communities and many Alaskans, the funds can’t come soon enough. The Alaska Municipal League has rough estimates that COVID-19 will cost local communities $1 billion through the next fiscal year. Approximately $500 million would be lost through revenue shortfalls and $500 million would be needed for costs connected to the virus.

Some local governments are moving to help people combat the economic impacts of COVID-19.

The Anchorage Assembly has approved a pilot program offering $1 million in grants for small businesses. Eligible small businesses could receive a grant up to $10,000 and sole proprietors could receive up to $5,000.

Jason Bockenstedt, the chief of staff to Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, said over 600 small businesses and sole proprietors applied for help and over 350 were found to be eligible. “Based on the current money that we have appropriated and the businesses that have applied, we will not be able to satisfy and get grants out to everyone,” he said.

Muni is looking to expand the small business program.

Another Anchorage pilot program is set to provide $1 million in funding for rental assistance through the United Way. Bockenstedt says the payments would be capped at $2,000 per household and be paid to landlords who are short on rent from their tenants.

The estimates are that the program could provide help for 500-1000 households. Rental assistance could expand depending on unemployment rates through the summer, Bockenstedt said.

The City of Fairbanks is looking to approve similar programs.

Teal Soden, the Fairbanks communications manager, says a committee is working to allocate the city’s $16 million in CARES Act funds and firmer decisions will be made next week.

Soden says that roughly 30% of that $16 million has been earmarked to go out as grants to Fairbanksans to assist in areas like rental payments and utility bills. That allocation amount is preliminary and could change through debate.

“While many details still need to be sorted out, we want Fairbanks to know that we are working fast to get the money out into the community and to those who really need it most,” Soden said.

In April, the City and Borough of Juneau approved $200,000 to be paid in rental assistance. According to CBJ officials, 30 households have made applications with the Alaska Housing Development Corp. for help. Seven households have received an average of $1,600 per household.

Rorie Watt, the CBJ City Manager, said the program has been “lightly used” but demand could increase if high unemployment rates persist.

The Juneau Assembly is also looking to spend $1 million

whose businesses have been hurt by the coronavirus.

Anchorage is also set to debate implementing a similar program to assist local child care operators.

“We need to make sure we have good, licensed child facilities for our children to be able to go to, so we can go to work,” Bockenstedt said.

For smaller communities, the Alaska Municipal League will help with stringent monthly reporting requirements. Nils Andreassen, the AML executive director, said the organization is set to hire a staff member to ensure the funding is being spent correctly.

Currently, local governments are prevented from using CARES Act funds to cover revenue shortfalls. Guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department could change and allow that to occur. “I think people are proceeding cautiously but planning optimistically,” Andreassen said of the federal aid.

In the meantime, local governments are busy writing budgets and hoping they can use federal coronavirus aid to help fill gaps. “It just feels like we’re juggling a lot of balls constantly and the information changes rapidly,” Watt said.

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