County Council likely to approve $20M relief fund for small businesses
Additional $5M would be distributed to individuals in need
The Montgomery County Council discussed a bill that would provide $20 million in grants to small businesses struggling during the public health crisis.
The Montgomery County Council voiced support Tuesday for providing grants of up to $75,000 apiece from a new $20 million emergency fund.
The bill, which would establish a Public Health Emergency Grant Program, was introduced at Tuesday’s council session.
The public hearing and vote on the legislation is scheduled for March 31.
Both for-profit and nonprofit businesses with up to 100 employees would be eligible to receive a grant.
An additional $5 million would be allocated for the Health and Human Services department to distribute to individuals in need of food, rent and other necessary assistance.
Council Member Andrew Friedson started drafting the bill early last week. County Executive Marc Elrich announced similar plans on Friday to propose emergency allocations.
Elrich told Bethesda Beat on Monday that his staff and the council’s staff worked together on the bill over the weekend.
Friedson said he was glad the county leaders and staff were on the same page in trying to relieve the financial hardships of businesses in the county.
“I think we got to a really good place [with the bill],” he said. “It’s changed dramatically and significantly in better ways since it started. This has been an evolving process.”
Friedson noted that leaders from the Washington, D.C., government recently put similar legislation in place in seven days. He supported acting with the same haste.
“We realize that we are in a crisis and we need to respond in a way that reflects that crisis,” he said.
Council Vice President Tom Hucker proposed several amendments to the bill.
One was to allow restaurants to bring in contractors for renovation projects while they are closed. Another was to provide low-interest loans for landlords and tenants to install solar arrays and water conservation measures.
“I really think that if we can put in place an amendment to allow if landlords forgive the April rent and maybe the May rent, and they document that, for the county to reimburse them,” he said. “That removes the burden of making the application by the deadline from the business owners, which have lots of other things on their mind, and many of the barriers to filling out a government application.”
But Hucker said the $75,000 cap was too high and needed to be lowered to $50,000 to make sure that more businesses could receive grants.
“I think we should consider $50,000, so more people could apply and receive a grant even if we allow in there the ability for people to reapply for a grant, if any deserving recipients need more than $50,000,” he said.
Friedson said the $75,000 cap was chosen from suggestions ranging from $50,000 to $100,000.
Council Members Will Jawando and Craig Rice emphasized the importance of designating a staff member to reach out to businesses owned by people who might not hear of the opportunity, such as immigrants.
Rice said the regulations and application need to be easy and clear and ask for only pertinent information. Larger organizations might have an advantage with having staff members who know how to fill out grant forms, he said.
“I think this will be something that we just definitely have to revisit, as we know and learn that it’s not going to reach all the businesses that need help,” he said. “We’re going to have to do so much more.”
Jawando said the council knew it wouldn’t solve every problem.
“If you just take our businesses that are 50 people or less, there’s 31,000 of them, right? So [the fund] is $20 million,” he said. “This will go quickly, but we’re trying to do what we can from where we sit.”
The council is usually asked to approve grants for small businesses to grow, Council Member Hans Riemer said.
“Now I think we’re confronted with the need to provide grants to those just to survive,” he said. “That’s the situation we’re in.”
Riemer called for landlords to temporarily stop collecting rent and for financial institutions to step in to help, as well.
“I think there could be a way forward if the financial system allows businesses to postpone loan payments — if the landlords allow businesses to postpone rent payments,” he said, adding that he realizes landlords have to pay bills, as well.
Elrich is hosting a virtual meeting through Nonprofit Montgomery for nonprofits and businesses on Wednesday at 11 a.m. to talk about the emergency grant program.
He will talk about and answer questions on relief, resources, taxes and fees deferment, and other topics. Registration for the conference closed on Tuesday, with 800 people registered.
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org