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How should St. Louis County spend COVID-19 relief money? Page names team to advise him

Shoppers return to the malls

Shoppers line up to enter the Forever 21 store at the West County Center as it reopens following the coronavirus pandemic closure on Monday, May 18, 2020. Many stores in the mall were limiting the number of people allowed inside at one time. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

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CLAYTON — A new St. Louis County committee will review county regulations on businesses recovering from the downturn caused by the coronavirus and advise officials on how to spend relief funds designed to boost the county’s economy.

The six-person committee leading the “Economic Recovery Team” will not make policies but will play a “critical role” overseeing four working groups helping direct county support for minority- and immigrant-owned businesses, small businesses, and community and workforce development, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said Wednesday at a news conference. The committee and all team members are volunteers.

“The team is designed to make sure that the eyes and ears of the small businesses are represented in this recovery,” Page said.

The moves comes amid skepticism from Republicans on the St. Louis County Council over the Page administration’s control over spending of $173.5 million in COVID-19 relief funds and criticism of the exclusion of minority-owned businesses in contracts to construct a $2 million emergency morgue.

At least $24.6 million of the funds committed to programs so far have included $17.5 million set aside in May for small business grants of up to $15,000, as well as programs providing $2 million to food banks and $5 million to child care centers.

Most of the grants for small businesses will be distributed based on eligibility and recommendations from County Council members, Doug Moore, spokesman for Page, said Wednesday. Each of the county’s seven districts is allocated a maximum of $2.5 million from the program.

But the economic advisory team could suggest further programs to aid businesses, including loans or changes to county ordinances that restrict how funds are provided to businesses, Moore said.

The County Council on Tuesday advanced a bill by Councilman Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, that would require Page appointees advising COVID-19 relief spending to file public statements about their personal financial interests.

“Anything that we can do to help these businesses to recover, I’m in favor of,” Fitch said Wednesday after the recovery team was announced. “Any unelected body or group of individuals advising the spending of public funds in my opinion should submit financial interests so the taxpayers know who they’re working on behalf of.”

The bill was amended Tuesday, Page said, with input from other council members including Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, who asked that appointees file statements with the Missouri Ethics Commission, in addition to the St. Louis County Clerk’s Office. The bill is expected to pass a final vote as early as next week, Fitch said.

The six appointees to lead the Economic Recovery Team are:

Rick Stevens, Christian Hospital president and board member of North County Incorporated association

Frank Jacobs, vice president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union and board member of the Missouri AFL-CIO

• Veta Jeffrey, executive director of the St. Louis Chapter of the Heartland Black Chamber of Commerce

Kellie McCoy, founder of a business consulting firm, the Candra Group

Jeff Pittman, chancellor of St. Louis Community College

Rodney Crim, CEO of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership

Jeffrey will chair a working group of county residents focused on support for minority-owned and immigrant-owned small businesses. McCoy will chair a group focused on small businesses and industry.

Brian Phillips, assistant vice chancellor for the medical center of Washington University in St. Louis and a former urban planner, will chair a group focused on community development. And Tiffany Davis, director of St. Louis Community College’s workforce development, will chair a group focused on workforce development.

St. Louis County’s relief plan is funded largely with $173.5 million from the landmark Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

The $17.5 million set aside for small business grants could be distributed by the end of July, Page said Wednesday. An initial mid-May deadline for small businesses to apply for the grants was extended two weeks to May 31 because of high interest in the program.

St. Louis County businesses with 50 or fewer employees who had reduced operations due to the county’s stay-at-home order are eligible to apply. Sole proprietorships and nonprofits are also eligible. Companies that already received financial benefit from a federal COVID-19 program are not eligible.

No business may receive a grant if the business employs an elected or appointed official of St. Louis County or a municipality, or one of their family members.

Nassim Benchaabane • 314-340-8167 @NassimBnchabane on Twitter nbenchaabane@post-dispatch.com

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Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.

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