McAlester getting $1 million to help with COVID relief

JAMES BEATY | Staff photo

City of McAlester Grant Writer and Public Information Officer Stephanie Giacomo talks about the $1 million the city of McAlester has been awarded through an Oklahoma Department of Commerce Community Development Block Grant to assist McAlester residents who qualify for COVID-19 relief.

Help is on the way for qualifying McAlester residents who can show proof of financial losses or hardships related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Oklahoma's Department of Commerce awarded the city of McAlester $1 million to assist residents qualifying for relief related to COVID-19. Money could be used for helping with things such as past due utility bills and past due rent or mortgage payments for qualifying individuals who meet the required guidelines.

McAlester Mayor John Browne signed the necessary paperwork Wednesday after city councilors previously authorized the action to accept the ODOC Community Development Block Grant for its Coronavirus Relief Program. Funds originated through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of the federal CARES Act.

The next step is for city of McAlester Grant Writer and Public Information Officer Stephanie Giacomo, who applied for the grant on behalf of the city, to attend ODOC training related to the program next week. She is enthused the city will be able to provide help for qualifying residents.

"This is huge, to be able to bring money to McAlester to help people because of the pandemic," Giacomo said.

Mayor Browne agreed.

"I think it's one of the best things we've done for the citizens as a council," he said. "There are people, through no fault of their own, who are in financial difficulties because of this pandemic."

Giacomo said the money can be used for things such as paying for past due utilities, including water, sewer, trash pickup, electricity and natural gas. Help with past due rent and mortgage payments is also available to qualifying residents.

Distributing the funds is expected to be more than a month away and could take several months.

Money would not go to the individual or family. Instead, direct payments would be made to the utility, landlord or mortgage-holder to whom the money is owed, said Giacomo.

"You have to be able to prove you were affected by the pandemic," she said.

"It could be a job loss, reduced hours, someone who is furloughed or quarantined, medical expenses — there's a wide variety of ways people are affected by the pandemic," Giacomo noted.

"Anybody who's been struggling to make payments could apply for relief," she said.

Those who reside outside the McAlester city limits are not eligible to participate in the city program.

"This is only for McAlester residents," Giacomo said, noting it does not include other parts of Pittsburg County. Those qualifying must also be within HUD income guidelines, which is 80% of Pittsburg County's median income of $60,900, Giacomo said.

Income guidelines vary according to the size of the family or household. For a family of four, for example, the income could not be more than $48,700 annually, she said.

Home rental costs must also fall within HUD guidelines, she said. "Say you have one bedroom, it could not exceed $564 per month." For two bedrooms, it could not be more than $743 and for three bedrooms, $926.

No family can receive more than six months of assistance through the program, she said.

It is expected to be handled by an outside community action agency that will contract with the city. The city still must send out a request for qualifications for those interested in handling the project and the proposed contract is expected to come before the city council for approval.

Mayor Browne gave Giacomo a lot of credit for finding out about the grant and for successfully applying for it on the city's behalf.

Up to 18 cities in Oklahoma were eligible to apply for the total $8,680,036 available Community Development Block Grant Coronavirus Relief Program.

Now is not the time to apply for the COVID-19 relief, Giacomo said. Additional details will be released as they become available.

"We will act as quickly as we can because we know how important this is for our citizens," said Giacomo.

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