Joel Brennan


As Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan toured businesses receiving COVID-19 economic recovery funds this week, one stop was in Waunakee.

Along with visits to Lone Girl Brewing and Octopi, Brennan made his way to Rex’s Innkeeper while the Waunakee Rotary Club met Thursday, where he talked about how Wisconsin is using federal pandemic relief dollars.

The CARES Act was the first infusion of recovery funds provided during the Trump administration, Brennan said. About half of the $2 billion CARES funds went to the pandemic health response for testing, contract tracing and setting up facilities in the state. The other $1 billion went to economic recovery for industries most affected – hotels, lodging and some nonprofits.

The spending formula is somewhat different American Rescue Plan Act or ARPA, the next provision of federal funds. Brennan stressed that local, state and federal officials have no “playbook” for how to spend the money.

“We were here at every kind of level navigating along,” he said.

With the $2.5 billion ARPA fund, the plan is to use about 80 percent for economic recovery and 20 percent toward the public health response.

“So we’re really trying to make sure that the resources… are getting out to the communities around the state,” Brennan said.

Brennan said he was visiting businesses the pandemic had most harmed and that would be the slowest to recover.

“We have spent significant resources in places like the hotel and lodging industry,” he said, adding about $75 million have gone to nearly 900 hotels. About $600 million will go to very small businesses, and currently the state is taking applications for movie theaters, summer camps, and minor sports league franchises.

“You get the sense that the effects of the pandemic have not been felt universally and the same across all the sectors,” Brennan said. “There are very specific ones that we have tried to make sure we can help with and assist because they are challenged. They’re challenged now, and they are going to continue to be challenged.”

Those include venues for live events and the small business that support those events with sound, lighting, flowers and ice sculptures.

About six weeks ago, the governor announced that local units of government could apply for funds to allow their communities to bounce back more quickly. That $2 million will go toward economic development projects, Brennan said.

“”It could be for public spaces; it could be around housing,” Brennan said, adding communities have been challenged.

Another $600 million has gone toward emergency rental assistance. Individuals can receive 12 months of rental and utilities assistance, including for internet access.

“That’s part of the economic recovery for the state, as well, ensuring people have a roof over their head,” Brennan added. The challenge is making sure the Department of Administration is communicating with nonprofits who can help individuals apply for the funds, he said.

“There is no playbook for what we’ve had to deal with both personally and in your businesses. And, what we’ve done at the state level – I guarantee we haven’t done everything right and we’ve had to pivot on dime – but we are trying to be as responsive as we can and take Wisconsin in the direction I think everybody wants moving forward,” Brennan said.

Asked how much of the federal dollars have been spent, Brennan said the CARES funds have been distributed, though recipients have through the end of the year to spend the money.

The state has allocated about two-thirds of $2.5 billion in ARPA funds.

About $400 million is reserved for public health responses.

“We’ve set aside some money because right now, the ground continually shifts under our feet. While we’d like to spend those dollars on the economic response and put COVID-19 in the rearview mirror, that’s just not the reality of where we are,” Brennan said.

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