County seeks COVID relief through CDBG

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Assistance could be coming to Harnett County residents impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Harnett County Commissioners scheduled a public hearing for Monday to approve a community development block grant application aimed at helping people make rent, mortgage and utility payments. The county plans to pursue $900,000 in state funding with a large portion of the money benefiting families struggling to pay bills as a result of COVID-19.

“The money that’s going to be helping pay rent and utilities, these are people who have lost their jobs,” Skip Greene, a county adviser on economic development grants, told commissioners at the Nov. 10 work session. “Anyone with low to moderate income based on HUD criteria are eligible to apply.”

Members of a committee created to take the pulse of the county heard several suggestions on how to utilize any type of state funding. One idea focused on turning the former Benhaven Elementary School into a food pantry and another centered around the creation of a centralized kitchen for the county. A key component of the grant, however, required applicants to explain how the pandemic hurt their ability to pay bills, which narrowed the funding’s range.

“They don’t specifically had to have lost their job, but right now they already have a low to moderate income,” said Greene. “In the application they will present why COVID has caused their problem. Somebody might say I’m just not working as much. There is no differentiation there. It’s for anyone who meets that qualification.”

Maximum assistance capped out at six months and any payment gets sent right to the vendor. Greene said he projected the grant, should the county receive all $900,000, would last no more than a year.

“It will be gone,” Greene said. “At the time of the application they have to show they have been delinquent on payment. There is criteria for how long they actually lived in the house or rented, and there also is the COVID.”

Commissioner Barbara McKoy asked if the grant also included people who lost work entirely because of the coronavirus.

“There are some people that are affected by COVID that had jobs and adequate income, but now they don’t have those jobs,” said McKoy. “A lot of people aren’t able to work because of this pandemic. Would that person fit that category? A lot of people don’t understand how COVID has devastated families and their incomes.”

Greene said the state is placing a strong emphasis on avoiding duplicating benefits with agencies like the Department of Social Services, and the proposed grant covers a wider range of income levels.

“This allows higher incomes to benefit and allows mortgage payments to be paid,” Greene said. “One of the things the state has stressed is trying to eliminate duplication of effort. Direct payments to the vendors is the best safeguard for that.”

Barry Blevins, director of community development, stressed the importance of tying the grant to the pandemic.

“Any application we provide to the state has to be a direct response to COVID,” said Blevins. “You’re addressing COVID-induced loss.”

During the community outreach segment of the planning process, Blevins said the committee found a few ideas that could come to life should the state make another round of funding available. Food banks came up more than once, but Blevins said the grant restricted use on private property and created some unique obstacles that needed to be figured out.

“What we decided is we’re going to try to do rent, mortgage and utility assistance,” Blevins said. “Food distribution is important to us, but because we had to get this application in quickly, it’s going to take some logistics that we had not prepared to do yet. If there is a second round, it gives us the opportunity to figure out the logistics. This money is essentially there until it runs out. Counties and cities are applying as quick as they can. We believe there will be a second round of this COVID-related block grant.”

Harnett County entered into a partnership with Johnston-Lee-Harnett Community Action, an agency that specializes in maximizing similar grants.

“They will do all of the heavy lifting,” said Blevins. “They are in a partnership with Lee County for almost the same thing. It works out really well. We think we have a good application.”

Monday’s monthly commissioner’s meeting is scheduled to start at 6 p.m.

Eliot Duke can be reached at eduke@mydailyrecord.com or at 910-230-2038.

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