On May 4, City Commission to debate use of about $3 million in business tax revenue to assist city businesses in surviving the COVID-19 epidemic

Commissioner Brody suggests the potential of collaborating with County Commission on loan program it has approved

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City Commissioner Hagen Brody, wearing a mask to protect against the novel coronavirus, makes points during the April 20 meeting. News Leader image

At the suggestion of Sarasota City Commissioner Hagen Brody, City Attorney Robert Fournier will draft a revised version of a city resolution that dictates how approximately $3 million in city business tax revenue can be used.

Brody’s proposal — as Fournier put it during the commission’s April 20 meeting — is to “piggyback” on a program the Sarasota County Commission authorized during its April 8 session. That county program calls for the $4.3 million in the county’s Economic Development Incentive Fund to be loaned to small businesses in an effort to help them survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the City Commission’s May 4 meeting, Brody and Fournier said, the city board members could discuss specifics of how the city money could be used for city businesses.

On April 20 — with the majority of the city commissioners and staff participating via telephone — Fournier explained that, at Brody’s request, he had researched the resolution that created the city’s fund. The document specifies that the money can be used only for capital improvements and planning initiatives. As a result, Fournier said, he could draft an amended version with language allowing the funds to be dispersed to businesses that have been harmed during a state of emergency. That way, he pointed out, the funds could be used in the aftermath of a natural disaster, too, such as a hurricane.

“That makes a lot of sense,” Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch replied.

If the city commissioners approve the revised resolution on May 4, Brody pointed out, “Those funds can become immediately accessible. … We’re coming up on May 1; [businesses] need to pay their rent; they need to pay their mortgages; and they need to pay employees.” He added that he wanted the city’s small businesses “to at least have a fighting chance” to remain open in the wake of the pandemic’s impact on the economy.

Earlier during the discussion, Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said owners of small businesses had told her that, prior to reopening, they have “a need for additional testing” for the virus. “Our businesses want to be sure that their places of employment are safe” for their workers and for customers, she added.

City Manager Tom Barwin responded that city staff members had been talking about the potential of using some of the Economic Development Fund to acquire testing kits, as well as masks “and perhaps thermometers” to help business owners.

Just this week, Barwin continued, staff had begun putting together a team to work with city businesses on how best to assist them. “I would like to see our community come back extremely smart,” Barwin said, with a process that could provide businesses with what he likened to the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”

Freeland Eddie further noted that the April 2 Executive Order Gov. Ron DeSantis issued, establishing a 45-day moratorium on evictions and the initiation of foreclosure actions related to non-payment of mortgages, affected homeowners and tenants only. “It did not apply to commercial businesses.”

Yet, she continued, many businesses are “at risk of being evicted.”

This is the second page of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Executive Order regarding the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. Image courtesy State of Florida

Referring to information the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County (EDC) provided the County Commission earlier this month, Barwin noted that 15,642 small businesses in the county have up to 50 employees each. “Those [county] funds are going to go really, really quickly.”

The motion the County Commission approved on April 8 called for a maximum loan of $25,000 per business, with applicants submitting to the EDC the same form they used to try to obtain assistance through the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). County commissioners also indicated that the EDC would set up a system that would approve the applications for the county loans on a first-come, first-serve basis.

No interest would have to be paid on a loan for the first 12 months, they agreed. Subsequently, businesses could keep the money for three more years at 3.5% interest.

Chair Michael Moran also called for the funds to be dispersed by May 1. (See the related story in this issue.)

When Brody asked City Attorney Fournier on April 20 whether a motion was necessary to authorize the drafting of the amended resolution, Fournier replied that he would make certain the issue would be on the May 4 agenda.

Then the city commissioners can approve it, if they choose to do so, Brody said.

That meeting is expected to be the first during which the board members and staff all participate via videoconferencing, through a software system called WebEx.