COVID-19 relief money for city’s golf course clubhouse project could now go to ‘payroll costs’

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Forest Lake may have found a new way to use $150,000 in federal COVID-19 relief money after the city reversed a controversial decision to commit the funds to building a new clubhouse on the city-owned Castlewood Golf Course.

But that new use is not what some leaders had hoped for.

Earlier this month, council members called for staff to find a way to redirect the money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to local nonprofit organizations that had already applied for relief, but now the Minnesota Management and Budget office (MMB) says Forest Lake has indicated it "would submit payroll costs" as a new use of the relief money.

City gets public backlash for spending federal COVID relief money on golf course clubhouse

Mayor Mara Bain could not be reached for comment on Tuesday, but during a city council meeting on Dec. 14, she urged city staff to find a way to get the relief money to eligible nonprofits.

"I would prefer to see that happen (rather) than us using those funds for overhead charges or other things where there might be city-type expenses," Bain said. "I think that’s part of what we owe the community at this point."

Former Mayor Stev Stegner was among those who applauded the council’s decision to rescind the spending from the golf course clubhouse project.

"I was glad that the city staff and city council was actually listening to the people of Forest Lake," Stegner said.

City pulls back COVID relief money for golf course clubhouse after community backlash and 5 INVESTIGATES report

But he now also questions whether internal "payroll costs" are an appropriate use of money meant for emergency relief during the pandemic.

"They’re not missing out on any wages that haven’t been covered by property taxes, so when they move COVID dollars into their payroll fund, I really don’t see that as being a very big help for the community."

5 INVESTIGATES called and emailed the Forest Lake City Administrator’s office as well as city council members on Tuesday, but no one had responded to the requests for comment.