NEW MARKET – Town leaders held preliminary discussions about how to distribute its share of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act money during a Town Council work session on Monday night, during which Town Manager Todd Walters said administrators were “struggling” to come up with ways to spend what could amount to nearly $160,000 in federal aid by the end of the calendar year.
Shenandoah County allocated $119,718 of its first wave of $3.8 million in CARES money to New Market earlier this summer and, according to recent discussions at the county level, the town could soon be given an additional $36,792 in a second round of funds.
CARES Act guidelines restrict the use of the federal relief funds. Localities can only use the money to address costs incurred directly as a result of COVID-19, and the funds cannot be used to address revenue shortfalls. New Market, like the other five incorporated towns in Shenandoah County, must get county approval for any proposed use of CARES Act money before it receives reimbursement.
Walters told council members on Monday that town administrators thought they’d come up with a viable plan that would allow the town to use CARES Act funds to pay a portion of the salaries of public safety employees, only to be told by County Administrator Evan Vass that such a use was ineligible. Walters added that New Market is “scrambling to spend” the use-it-or-lose-it money by the December deadline and expressed frustration at guidelines that seem to be “all over the place” and open to varying interpretations.
Walters noted that potential uses of the federal aid money that have been discussed include purchasing and installing new audiovisual technology in the council chambers to accommodate virtual attendance and recording of town meetings, installing touchless technology in the Arthur L. Hildreth, Jr. Municipal Building’s restrooms, and installing an automatic door at the main entrance to the town hall.
Mayor Larry Bompiani said during Monday’s work session that recent discussions within the New Market Community Center presented the idea of using the center as a “hot spot” to accommodate distance learning for school-age children. Walters said CARES money could be given to the center to create a computer lab within the facility to be used for such a purpose.
Council members also suggested giving some of the money to the local library, and Walters said the town could give federal relief funds to the local child care facility to aid families who need the service but have been financially impacted by COVID-19.
Walters added that the town could give CARES Act money to local businesses in the form of grants (though the county is already doing so through its Industrial Development Authority, he noted) and/or use some of the money to help financially strapped residents pay utility bills, though both instances would require the town to funnel the money through different channels (such as the New Market Area Chamber of Commerce for the former approach) as it can’t directly give money to businesses and individuals.
Council members agreed they would each develop a list of potential uses for the funds to fuel further discussions on the topic.
During a special-called meeting that preceded Monday’s work session, council members voted in favor of the Chamber of Commerce’s request to hold its annual Heritage Day on Sept. 26. Though the vote of approval was unanimous, Vice Mayor Peggy Harkness expressed concern about holding such an event under the cloud of COVID-19 and said the potential for large gatherings of people on the town’s sidewalks was particularly worrisome.
Walters said the Chamber of Commerce is working with vendors to ensure social distancing standards can be met and that proper sanitation areas would be provided for the event, and he further added that the structure of the event allows people to come and go throughout the day rather than pulling in large crowds all at once.
Bompiani noted that New Market has already successfully held other events, such as the Cross Roads Music Fest series, in recent weeks.
“I think at this point many people … have learned as far as social distancing on their own or not to come out to an event if they’re not feeling comfortable with it,” Bompiani said. “I’m kind of on the side of give the town and the area a chance to start moving forward, hopefully.”
Also during the special-called meeting, council members unanimously voted to table until next Monday’s regular meeting a decision on four Facade Enhancement Grant applications, citing the need for more information from one of the applicants.
During the ensuing work session, council members decided they will interview five candidates for the open seat on the town’s Planning Commission at the end of next Monday’s meeting, and heard a presentation from Walters regarding updates and changes to the town’s personnel handbook.