EASTON, Pa. – Northampton County Council approved $1.87 million in grants to small businesses Thursday night in a bid to keep the local economy moving along during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The funds come from the county's $30.6 million in 2021 American Rescue Plan money, a program passed under President Joseph Biden, following the CARES Act that was approved during the presidency of Donald Trump.
"We are approaching $17 million (in aid to businesses) between the two rounds" of ARP and CARES grants, county Fiscal Affairs Director Stephen Barron told council at its meeting Thursday.
If council approves County Executive Lamont McClure's plan to distribute about half of this year's ARP money to "Main Street" businesses, the total will reach $27 million over two years. Some businesses that benefited from the CARES Act money have received a second cash injection from the Rescue Plan.
Among small businesses that received the maximum $15,000 grant are: Hidden Pines Farm, Bath; Koehler Farm, Bangor; Nello's Specialty Meats, Nazareth; Fuhrer's Tavern and Grill, Portland; A.B.E. Lawn and Tree service, Walnutport; The Brick restaurant and The Melting Pot fondue restaurant, both in Bethlehem; Newhard Pharmacy, Northampton, and The Widow's Tavern, Stockertown.
Councilman Ron Heckman supported the grants but said service businesses have to pay employees better. Service jobs have been underpaid and unappreciated for too long, he said.
"I will continue to support helping small businesses but I will be looking in much more detail at how these businesses treat employees," he said.
The 2022 budget is due in about two weeks, and Councilwoman Margaret Ferraro said if McClure has plans to cut taxes, he should instead use that money to support Gracedale Nursing Home in Upper Nazareth Township.
McClure has said the county is in sound financial shape with a strong pension fund of about $500 million.
"We're in good shape, but boy, if there's any money out there, Gracedale needs it," Ferraro said. She noted the trouble the home has had in hiring staff, and said the county should consider hiring a management firm.
Council did approve $500 sign-on bonuses for new Gracedale staff but with little hope that the extra pay will fill the empty jobs.
"This is a good idea," Councilman John Cusick said. "I just don't think it goes far enough." He said a bigger bonus is needed to compete with other employers.
Councilmembers Kevin Lott and William McGee asked that the administration consider coming back to council with a bigger payment for new employees.
In another personnel issue, McClure said at the county prison, 22 inmates, seven staff members and two vendors have tested positive for COVID-19. Almost all were unvaccinated, he said. He also expressed disappointment that only 38% of corrections officers have been vaccinated, despite a $500 bonus payment.
The payment is good until Dec. 31, he said.