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How Centre County Used Its COVID-19 Relief Funds

When Centre County government typically receives a grant, it’s the culmination of a months-long application process and another period of waiting to learn if the money has been awarded. Then the county might have two to three years to spend the funds.

But when it came to the largest grant ever administered by the county — a $14.7 million County Relief Block Grant allocated from Pennsylvania’s share of federal CARES Act funds — years became months and months became days.

‘We needed to apply for this within days. We needed to approve it in days and we needed to spend it in months,’ Commissioner Michael Pipe said.

‘It was a remarkable, remarkable feat.’

Counties were awarded the funds in the late spring and could use them to support businesses, municipalities, nonprofits, educational institutions and county expenses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The money mostly needed to be spent by the end of 2020.

More than $11 million of Centre County’s grant was distributed outside of county government agencies to aid local governments, institutions, businesses and nonprofits.

Mary Kay Williams, the county’s former director of human resources, was hired in June for the temporary role of relief block grant coordinator to lead a team of county personnel that managed the grant program. At Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting, the day before her contract expired, Williams gave an overview of the major distributions of the grant funds.

‘We covered a lot of ground in a very short time frame,’ Williams said. ‘I was really proud to be part of the project.’

Businesses and Nonprofits

The largest part of the county’s grant program was COVID-19 relief grants for small businesses. The county worked with Penn State’s Small Business Development Center on a process that resulted in 437 local businesses in 27 of the county’s 35 municipalities receiving a combined $5,536,130. Individual grants ranged from $900 to $30,000.

‘So many small businesses still are hurting but I’ve heard from so many businesses that said ‘you know, you were the lifeline. If I hadn’t had this funding I wouldn’t have been able to pay my rent or my taxes or my payroll,” Williams said.

Commissioner Mark Higgins said that even though Centre County is mid-sized in population, it had one of the largest small business grant programs from CARES Act funds in Pennsylvania.

The Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County received $45,780 and Happy Valley Adventure Bureau received $43,400 for their continuing efforts to bolster the local economy.

The county also partnered with Centre Foundation on a relief grant program for local nonprofits. A total of 107 organizations in 24 municipalities received $864,500, with grants ranging from $1,000 to $20,000.

Local Governments and Educational Institutions

Thirty municipalities in Centre County received a combined $1,421,419 in grants to reimburse COVID-19-related expenses.

‘This helps everybody in Centre County,’ Williams said. ‘This will help municipalities make sure that they have more money in their bank accounts because we were able to help them.’

Williams said every municipality was offered the opportunity for reimbursement funds, but that five did not have enough related expenses to seek reimbursement.

Educational institutions received $499,375 for pandemic-related expenses.

Recipients included Bald Eagle, Bellefonte, Penns Valley and State College school districts, Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology and Penn State. Philipsburg-Osceola, Tyrone and Keystone Central school districts and Cen-Clear, all of which serve multiple counties, received funding as well based on the number of Centre County students enrolled. 

Health and Safety

Centre County used $862,014 from the block grant to fund a free COVID-19 testing site for 11 weeks. The clinic operated in the Nittany Mall from Oct. 27 through Dec. 19 and the commissioners recently approved another four weeks from Jan. 5-30, though the location remains to be determined.

Testing is open to anyone of any age and no appointment is needed. Photo identification is required. The clinic will be open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays in January.

‘Centre County had the right perspective of putting the target in place of stamping down COVID-19 spread,’ Williams said. ‘I think the testing site was phenomenal.’

Another $800,000 was used to supply personal protective equipment throughout the county. Williams credited the county’s Emergency Management Agency for its quick work in securing the equipment.

‘If not for this grant, the leadership of the commissioners and EMA, we would not have gotten all this out to protect emergency responders, local government, health care, schools, nonprofits and businesses,’ she said.

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Williams and the commissioners agreed that the success of the grant distributions was the result of cooperation throughout the county and particularly among the relief block grant team that included Krista Davis, risk manager and wellness coordinator; Margaret Gray, county administrator; Jessica Herren, Criminal Justice Planning executive secretary; Chad Joyce, chief information and records officer; Jody Lair, Emergency Services operations and training officer; Tom Martin, director of financial management Tom Martin; Jason Moser, controller; Abigail Rani, Emergency Services administrative assistant; and Jeff Wharran, director of Emergency Services.

‘In my work with this, I’ve talked to other counties. I’ve talked to other leadership and people are saying ‘Oh my gosh, how did you get everybody to work together? We’re squabbling…,’’ Williams said. ‘I can honestly say I’ve never had that happen at all throughout this process. Some days were very tense but everybody had a great positive spirit, a great attitude and were the heart and soul of getting the money out into the community.’

‘This pandemic has been, without needing to be said, difficult for a lot of people,’ Pipe added. ‘This, I think, was one silver lining of it in terms of being able to work together and get this money out there.’