Sarasota city staff working to iron out details of small business grant program before announcing launch

General manager of Economic Development Department anticipates first round of checks could go out by end of next week

Editor’s note: The Sarasota News Leader is providing general reporting on the novel coronavirus to readers for free as a public service.

The Sarasota City Commission conducts its May 12 special meeting via the Webex videoconferencing software. The commissioners are joined by City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs (top left), Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown (second row, far left), City Attorney Robert Fournier (second row, second from left) and City Manager Tom Barwin (second row, third from left). News Leader image

The $2.2-million small business grant program that the Sarasota City Commission has approved probably will close within a day-and-a-half — if not during the day — of its launch, Steve Stancel, the city’s general manager of economic development, told the board members during a special meeting on May 12.

However, as of mid-afternoon on May 14, details of the program still were being worked out, Jason Bartolone, city communications specialist, told The Sarasota News Leader.

“We do have a webpage set up with general information about the program and eligibility, and business owners can enter their email address and sign up to receive notifications when the application period opens,” Bartolone added in an email.

Further, Bartolone noted, business owners are welcome to email for more information.

Stancel told the commissioners this week that a press release would be sent out to alert the public to the details about the launch.

During the May 12 special meeting, Stancel said he thought the program could begin as early as May 15. However, he indicated the possibility that the launch date would end up being moved to early next week.

He further explained that he anticipated staff would take 700 or 800 applications, adding that he would “close the window at that point.” Stancel pointed out that he expects between 300 and 400 likely could be approved.

“We have received hundreds of calls, literally, about the program,” he noted. Staff has been directing all callers to the city webpage.

Steve Stancel addresses the City Commission on Dec. 3, 2018. File photo

Additionally, Stancel told the board members, “The first checks could start going out as quickly as the end of next week.” He expects all the funds will have been distributed by June 1, he continued.

As the commissioners agreed during their regular session on May 4, the owner of a business in the city of Sarasota that is suffering financial repercussions from the COVID-19 public health emergency may apply for up to $5,000. Funds will be awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Only companies that have fewer than 25 full-time employees are eligible, and the money must be used for specific purposes staff has identified — such as making commercial rent or mortgage payments, keeping staff employed or making safety improvements related to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Priority also will be given to those firms that have not received more than $5,000 through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Emergency Advance (EIDL) initiative, “or a combination thereof.” On May 12, both Stancel and City Manager Tom Barwin suggested that tweak to the criteria the commission established through a May 4 vote.

Both men noted that they had been contacted by business owners who had received less than $5,000 in federal assistance and felt the city’s grant program criteria was too strict.

One company, for example, Stancel said, received slightly more than $1,000, while a couple received $2,000 each. “

It does make sense to us,” Barwin told the commissioners, to let such firms apply for the city aid, up to the difference between $5,000 and the amount they received through the federal programs.

These are eligibility criteria for the city grant program. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Additionally, businesses that received money through the Sarasota County Commission/Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County Small Business Resiliency Loan Program are eligible, but they essentially would “go to the back of the line” behind applicants who had not received any form of financial assistance to cope with the public health emergency.

Nonprofit organizations, home-based businesses and professional services firms are excluded, the city grant program webpage points out.

The City Commission this week formally approved a budget resolution to enable city staff to write checks to companies that win the grants. Stancel noted that providing the special checks would be faster than electronic fund transfers.

Paper applications, as well

Among other new facets of the program that the city commissioners discussed on May 12 will be allowing business owners to turn in paper applications. Additionally, the grant program materials are to be available in Spanish.

Commissioner Liz Alpert suggested the paper applications early on during the discussion, saying that would be necessary “for those who may not be technologically advanced or literate.”

Probably 95% of applicants will be tech-savvy, Barwin told the commissioners.

Yet, Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie agreed with Alpert that such people should not be penalized.

“I think the paper application is a good idea,” Commissioner Hagen Brody concurred.

This is the program logo, as shown on the city website. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

However, discussion ensued about how such business owners would get copies of the application and, furthermore, how they could get those completed forms time-stamped to ensure the applications were considered appropriately, given the first-come, first-served nature of the grant process.

After debate, Alpert said, “It almost sounds like [a paper application] creates more problems than it’s worth,” adding that she felt 99% of the applicants would be able to use the online process.

As Alpert was making those remarks, Freeland Eddie was shaking her head “No.”

“I think the paper application should be made available,” Freeland Eddie pointed out. The whole point of the program, Freeland Eddie continued, is to help under-served members of the city.

However, she did add, “The onus is on the applicant to get [the paper document] to a place where it can be time-stamped.”

City Attorney Robert Fournier agreed with her about the accessibility issue. With the paper option, he pointed out, staff likely will see “a broader pool of applicants.”

In response to a question from Freeland Eddie, Economic Development General Manager Stancel said, “We’ve constructed a very simple application. We wanted to make [the process] quick and easy.”
Part of the application will require the business owner to sign a declaration that the information provided is true, for legal purposes, he added.

Because of city staffing limitations, Stancel noted, only spot checks will be undertaken to determine the validity of each applicant’s eligibility. However, he explained, the process will ensure that staff can pursue the return of funds given to any business later found to have falsified information on the application.

The affidavit a business owner will have to sign is “like a contract,” Fournier pointed out. It makes it clear that, by signing the form, the person acknowledges that the city will recover the money if the business does not comply with the program criteria.

Freeland Eddie acknowledged the fact that the city does not have sufficient staff to “be ‘Big Brother,’ so to speak, [to make certain that no business is] taking advantage of the city’s kindness.”

Within 90 days, Stancel also noted, the recipient of a grant will have to provide a report to the city, along with copies of receipts, showing how the funds were spent.

Commissioner Brody finally made the motion to approve the resolution drafted by staff to implement the budget transfer. That motion included the call for paper applications to be made available to the public.

Commissioner Willie Shaw seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously.

The money for the program is coming from three sources: $1,350,000 in business tax receipts set aside for economic development projects; $2,284,609 in money from the Newtown Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund; and $934,609 from the Downtown Sarasota CRA Trust Fund.

A map shows the location of the Newtown Community Redevelopment Area. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In response to a question from Shaw, Stancel said that, because the largest pool of money is from the Newtown CRA, and it can be used only for businesses in that district, the possibility exists that a second or perhaps even a third round of applications can be processed for businesses located in that district.