County commissioner Manuel Anaya asks questions about the American Rescue Plan funds during a special board meeting last week. The commissioners have decided to prioritize assisting local businesses, farmers and ranchers with the federal funding.
Cathy Cook | El Defensor Chieftain

The Socorro County commissioners need to decide how to spend $3.2 million in federal funding to help the county recover economically from COVID-19. Using the funds to support local businesses appears to be a priority for the commissioners. The county will also use the money for COVID-19 vaccine incentives and a vaccine lottery.

The first half of funding from the American Rescue Plan has already been received, $1.6 million. County commissioners met last week to discuss priorities for spending the funds. What the funds can be spent on is limited by both the federal legislation that allocated the funding and by the treasury department’s guidelines.

The commissioners were adamant about prioritizing grants for local businesses that have suffered financially due to the pandemic. They set aside $750,000 for grant funding for businesses and farmers. Local businesses are desperate, said Commissioner Glen Duggins.

“I know a lot of businesses lost a lot of money. They weren’t able to open. We need to help them,” said Commissioner Ray Martinez.

The grant program would be similar to the program the county developed to distribute CARES Act funds to local businesses, said County Manager Michael Hawkes. With that program, a committee took four months to set guidelines, develop a timeframe, deadline and an application process before businesses were able to apply for assistance.

The county commissioners are also using American Rescue Plan funds for a county vaccine lottery and a vaccine incentive program that would support local businesses. The programs should begin June 28. The commissioners are putting aside $50,000 for vaccine incentives and $25,000 for a county vaccine lottery. The vaccine incentive program would offer residents $50 gift certificates purchased by the county from local businesses as an incentive to get vaccinated. The program would also pay a vendor to offer free transportation for people who need a ride to get vaccinated. The vaccine lottery should run until October, and residents can participate by presenting proof of vaccination at the county manager’s office. The plan is to have 100 winners receive $250 gift certificates.

The county also urgently needs to upgrade its cybersecurity and outdated website, Hawkes told the commissioners. The county’s servers also need to be updated soon, as well as the phone system. The commissioners are looking at spending $200,000 of funding on technology and cybersecurity related upgrades.

“One thing that’s very very very necessary is our website. It’s eons behind time. Cybersecurity, we’re walking a thin line,” said Hawkes.

Other priorities the commissioners are considering allocating money from the first half of the funding towards are ventilation improvements at the county courthouse, reimbursing the funds the county spent on paid administrative leave during the pandemic, improvements for Escondida Lake, funding for the Socorro County Fair and Rodeo Association which lost revenue due to the pandemic, and the senior center. The senior center’s meal costs skyrocketed during the pandemic, overspending by approximately $180,000, said Hawkes.

Cathy Cook, El Defensor Chieftain