County commissioners spar over small business grant proposal

Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton. Photo by Cooper Levey-Baker

At a Monday morning budget workshop, Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton had sharp words for a proposed Small Business Assistance Grant Program, saying the project would reward “derelict behavior.”

The grant program is being floated as a way to “encourage owners/tenants of existing business properties to rehabilitate or alter in a manner that preserves, or enhances the values of the property,” according to a slideshow presentation. The county would provide 50/50 matching funds, up to a maximum of $7,500.

Jeff Maultsby, the manager of business and economic development for the county, tells the Sarasota News Leader that the idea for the grant program was generated by a February commission meeting, during which commissioners wanted to know what the county was doing to help small businesses. According to Maultsby, the commission gave his office wide latitude “to address the needs of what we are hearing from small businesses in our community.”

The May 7 presentation was far from final. Maultsby says its goal was just to “stoke the conversation.”

According to the preliminary plan, all work would have to be done by “local, licensed and insured contractors,” and it would need to be completed within six months of grant approval.

According to a staff presentation, the grants would help fight commercial property deterioration.

“I’m struggling with this one,” Thaxton said. “Were I to vote today I wouldn’t support it.” Thaxton said the program would reward business owners who “have allowed the deterioration” in the first place, essentially encouraging “derelict behavior.”

Commissioner Joe Barbetta disagreed. “It’s a quality of life issue,” he argued. “In the end, we’re upgrading properties, and there might be a ripple effect with surrounding properties.”

Commission Chairwoman Christine Robinson concurred with Barbetta: “I think this will bring some long-term sustainability to some of these businesses.” Commission Vice Chairwoman Carolyn Mason supported the idea as well.

Maultsby told the commission that his staff will hammer out more details of the proposal.

One possible sticking point: how to pay for the program. Maultsby suggested the funding could come from general revenue, the community housing fund or the economic incentive fund, but that debate was tabled till next time.

Commissioner Nora Patterson suggested the program might be improved if it targeted specific parts of the county that are hurting. She also criticized a provision allowing interior improvements to be covered. “In this case I could use it for shelving or whatever,” she said.

Patterson also emphasized the importance of closely defining which local businesses would be able to access the funds.

Robinson argued that the program should also be open to local franchisees. She told an anecdote about a friend who owns a fast food franchise who was required by the national chain to make certain improvements. “And if they want to upgrade in addition, it came out of their pocket,” she said.

Being a franchisee “doesn’t mean you’re not a small business owner,” Robinson argued. “We’ve got to be careful that we don’t exclude somebody in that particular situation.”