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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this file photo.

A state panel Wednesday endorsed several requests totaling more than $30 million that would use federal coronavirus relief funds in various ways, ranging from reimbursing schools for their food service accounts, to providing grants aimed at preventing suicide among veterans, to providing rental assistance.

The largest request that won the endorsement of the state's Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act steering committee -- appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to recommend the best uses of $1.25 billion in federal funds -- is a $9.8 million request from three state lawmakers to reimburse schools' food service accounts.

To fund this request, the committee recommended using $4.9 million in unallocated relief funds and reallocating $4.9 million of the Department of Education's allotment. The department's $20 million allotment was to be used to fund school employees' covid-related leave.

"The districts were encouraged and told if they had their own food service people, to keep those people on and that's why we have this group of districts that did keep those people on, so that they have these higher bills than maybe some districts," said a committee member, Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Education Secretary Johnny Key, who also serves on the committee, said the department provided guidance to school districts to try to avoid widespread layoffs.

"But what was not taken into account then at that time with the guidance we provided was food service operates out of separate accounts," he said. "School districts, who did not have contractors or had district employed staff, kept those on."

About 90% of Arkansas districts continued to provide meals last spring, while just 40% of the nation's districts continued to provide meals and that's one of the contributing factors to this discrepancy, he noted.

Key said school districts reached out to lawmakers and Bryant School District Superintendent Karen Walters reached out to Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton.

"Sen. Hammer took up the mantle along with some of his colleagues," Key said.

Along with Sens. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, and James Sturch, R-Batesville, Hammer sought the $9.8 million in a letter dated Oct. 1 to the steering committee. About 40 other lawmakers signed a separate letter supporting this request.

Some school districts had to use funds from other sources to close their books without shortages in their food services account and the requested reimbursements will allow schools to replace those funds that were intended for other purposes such as purchasing personal protective equipment, Ingram, Sturch and Hammer said in their letter.

Key said of the allotment for school employee covid leave, "as of right now, we have only disbursed a little over of $600,000 of that $20 million to schools in response to teachers being on leave due to their testing positive or being in close contact and having to quarantine."

Key said the reason so little of that money was spent so far is school districts found ways to let teachers work from home and avoid leave if they had to quarantine or were able to work despite testing positive.

"But they have had to hire subs to come in and cover the classrooms," he said.

The state's CARES Act steering committee also recommended:

• $5.4 million in increased funds for the state Department of Agriculture for meat processing grants.

The department has been allocated $5 million in federal coronavirus relief fund for meat processing grants, but received more than $32 million in grant proposals, said a committee member, Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View. The increasing funds will allow the further development of the meat processing industry that's important in the state, she said.

• $5 million to the Department of Human Services to provide grants to nonprofit groups that provide mental health and veterans services to target suicide prevention and mental health assistance for veterans in need of more services because of covid-19.

Department Secretary Cindy Gillespie, who serves on the committee, said the department will work in partnership with Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, and work with crisis stabilization units to help veterans.

• $5 million to the Department of Human Services to provide community outreach investment grants to charitable services through the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation for services in high-poverty areas to meet immediate needs resulting from covid-19 not addressed by other sources.

Keesha Smith, deputy director at the department, said, "High poverty and high minority areas within the state of Arkansas have suffered greatly throughout this pandemic.

"The community-based organizations that seek to serve them equally have been hit because of the low amount of donations, the drying up of other financial resources that typically come to them," she said, "thus it has been a double hit to many of the communities that need them."

The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation will take the lead in vetting the organizations and their proposals submitted, Smith said, and the amount for each proposal has been lowered from $50,000 to $10,000.

• $5 million for the state Department of Finance and Administration to allow the continued reimbursement of state agency needs that were included on the steering committee's list of preapproved items.

• $4.2 million to the state Department of Commerce for rental assistance.

In addition, Department Secretary Mike Preston, who serves on the committee, said the $4.2 million federal coronavirus relief funds will be supported with $5.6 million in Community Development Block Grants for rental assistance. Bond and Rep. Andrew Collins, D-Little Rock, requested the funds for rental assistance.

• $1.8 million for the state Department of Human Services for food aid through the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. Gillespie said $1 million of these funds would go for canned goods and $750,000 for processed meats.

In addition, Jim Hudson, counsel at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance also will get $4.6 million in Community Development Block Grants.

Kathy Webb of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance said the plan is for spending the federal coronavirus relief funds before the end of this year and the block grants would be spend over a three-year period to help the food banks, senior citizens and other entities "as we begin to recover from the pandemic."

• $1.2 million to the state Department of Health for the Healthy Equity Response Team's proposal for mobile health units. The request would largely support mobile health units to increase testing availability in the rural parts of the state, and also support nonprofit groups, said Stephanie Williams, the department's chief of staff.

ShaRonda Love, executive director of the Arkansas Minority Health Commission, said this request would provide support for two mobile health units to reach the Delta's counties and southwest part of the state as well as work with community organizations to support covid-19 initiatives and marketing for the mobile health units.

The steering committee also voted to accept back $6.6 million in federal coronavirus relief funds from the Department of Human Services from a $23.4 million allocation.

Print Headline: State panel backs millions in relief spending

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