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Commissioners OK $1.2M for Carroll County businesses, but debate tying eligibility with polystyrene ban compliance

More help is on the way for Carroll County restaurants and other businesses after the county’s commissioners moved on a rainy Thursday morning to accept an additional $1.2 million in coronavirus relief funding from the state.

Though the vote to accept the money was ultimately unanimous, it followed an extended spat between Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, and three of his fellow commissioners over whether its allocation should be tied to business compliance with the ban on polystyrene — often known by the brand name Styrofoam — that went into effect in the state on Oct. 1.

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Later on in the meeting, Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, suggested, as a sort of compromise, attaching a memorandum to the funding’s approval to remind eligible restaurants about the law, but the commissioners agreed that doing so would have to be addressed in a separate action in the future.

The new funding allocated to Carroll County comes from the $250 million Gov. Larry Hogan announced last week that he’s drawing from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to offer more relief to businesses that have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic’s financial implications.

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Of this money, Hogan set aside $50 million for Maryland restaurants — about $1.2 million of which will go toward food trucks, wineries, distilleries, breweries and eateries in Carroll County, excluding franchises.

The commissioners also spoke last week about devoting about $500,000 in federal coronavirus relief funding to support a local shopping and dining initiative. They voted last week to give nearly $1.9 million in federal funds to fire companies and municipalities. This money must be spent by Dec. 30 and can only be used for costs related to COVID-19. On Thursday, though, Carroll County economic development director Jack Lyburn suggested dedicating that money solely to supporting retail businesses.

Local restaurants eligible to receive funding from the new state grant allocated to the county may use the money to pay rent and utility expenses, according to the plan the commissioners approved Thursday. Those with up to nine employees may be allocated $5,000, whereas those with 10 or more employees may be allocated $10,000.

Under the plan Lyburn laid out for the board, restaurants would have to be in “good standing” with the state in order to receive funding, meaning they would have to have paid their state and property taxes. Frazier, though, argued that the definition of “good standing” that Lyburn described should be expanded to require restaurants to abide by the polystyrene ban before receiving funding.

A local restaurant that he recently visited had a big stack of polystyrene on full display, which Frazier said staff members were handing out “left and right, like they’re cookies.” When Frazier asked to speak with the establishment’s manager, he said the manager gave him three different reasons for why the shop still had polystyrene, none of which Frazier said he believes.

“I’m all for helping out, but if we’re going to give out relief money, perhaps they should be following the rules set by the state,” he said.

But Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, was quick to push back against Frazier’s arguments, calling his suggestion “ridiculous.” He said he’d previously come to an agreement with the county health department that businesses with existing stocks of polystyrene from before the ban should be allowed to use what they have.

“Now, if you’re ordering cases of Styrofoam, okay, that’s another thing. But, I don’t know where you’re going to find these people that want to put the Styrofoam police badge on their shirt, and go out there and try to [enforce this ban],” he said. “Our people are maxed out, trying to do the things we gotta do now.”

Without cracking a smile, Frazier acknowledged that if the county hired Styrofoam police officers, they’d “blow away in the wind,” eliciting a chuckle from the commissioners. He then pointed out that the county health department already had a process in place for enforcing the ban — the commissioners wouldn’t have to hire any additional staff members to determine whether restaurants were in compliance.

Carroll County Health Officer Ed Singer explained earlier in the meeting that the health department would be documenting how much polystyrene that restaurants have left during routine inspections of the establishments, although he added that it would be tricky to determine whether the restaurants have been ordering new stock or using up their existing stock. However, he said that if the commissioners wanted the health department to determine whether restaurants that apply for funding are in compliance with the ban, according to the department’s records, it could do so.

Frazier said he’s fine with people using up the polystyrene stock they had on hand before the ban went into effect. He said he’s mainly concerned that certain businesses are continuing to place orders for the material.

“I don’t think we’re in a position in Carroll County to decide what laws we’re gonna follow and what laws we’re not gonna follow that are sent down by the state,” he said. “If you can’t follow the rules, I can’t see why you should get any additional funding from us or the state.”

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Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, agreed with Wantz. Maybe in the future the commissioners could advise businesses that they need to work toward complying with the polystyrene ban, Rothstein said, but for now they should focus on getting the relief money out into the community as fast as possible.

And although Wantz told Frazier he appreciated his environmental sensibilities, he emphasized that common sense is needed during the pandemic.

“I understand about the Styrofoam, I get it,” he said. “But I’m not in favor of putting another parameter on an industry that is struggling and challenged as it is.”

The commissioners moved on from that point, asking Lyburn for clarification on why his department was suggesting they open up the $500,000 in retail funding on Nov. 3, but wait to open up the $1.2 million in funding until the following week. In response, Lyburn explained that his department wanted to avoid causing any confusion to businesses.

However, all of the commissioners finally agreed: They wanted to get the money out as soon as possible. Frazier proposed opening up applications for the relief packages while the county waits to receive the new state money, so that when the funding arrives, officials can immediately send it out.

Lyburn said the county is still waiting on some additional information from the state to complete the application, but promised to aim to start allowing retail businesses and restaurants to apply for the funding on Nov. 3.

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Of the funding that the commissioners approved last week, fire companies will receive just under $1.5 million, which will assist with lost revenue and go toward expenses that normal fundraising would have covered, such as bills and rent.

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Various municipalities requested about $386,000 in total.

County government spokesperson Chris Winebrenner provided a breakdown of the requests. Westminster will receive $230,000 for administrative leave, sick leave, unemployment, personal protective equipment and to set up a second public works office. Taneytown gets about $14,550 to purchase technology for commissions and boards to meet remotely. Sykesville will receive $35,000 to allow for virtual meeting capacity within the town hall. Manchester will spend $50,000 on ultraviolet lighting units for disinfecting surfaces. Hampstead asked for $40,260 for law enforcement hazard pay, a video camera in the meeting room and air purifiers. New Windsor requested $16,240 for tablets/technology for virtual meetings and cameras for monitoring the town hall. Union Bridge and Mount Airy did not request funding.

Carroll County Public Library plans to use about $8,560 for personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and bags for book pickups. The Humane Society of Carroll County asked for $651 for Plexiglass barriers for reopening.

Mary Grace Keller contributed to this article.

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