Commissioners hear concerns about minority business eligibility for COVID recovery funds

Signing a form.

Incomplete business records and outstanding balances with the county could disqualify some small businesses from receiving county grants and loans to help them weather the pandemic shutdown until they can reopen — and some are concerned about the impact those restrictions could have on minority businesses struggling to stay afloat.

“Quite frankly … I think this is a big problem,” Doris J. Cammack-Spencer, president and CEO of the Southern Maryland Minority Chamber of Commerce, told the Board of Charles County Commissioners during an unusual “special meeting” on Friday morning. “We’re trying to help people, not hurt them.”

Cammack-Spencer was responding to a statement by Lucretia Freeman-Buster, the county’s chief of business development, that local businesses are required to have no unpaid balances with the county government in order to be eligible to apply for loans and grants to help them with rent, payroll, and other business necessities during the continued closure of nonessential businesses.

Freeman-Buster said that the Economic Development Department is willing to work with businesses on a case-by-case basis to address the issue. Of the eight calls she has received since the launch of the county’s special business grant program last week, Freeman-Buster said three of them were from business owners who were concerned that their unpaid taxes or other balances with the county would make them ineligible to receive funds.

“I told them to go ahead and submit the applications and I … would really have to read through them and see if it makes sense to process them in spite of an outstanding balance with the county,” Freeman-Buster said.

Since launching the COVID relief fund on Monday, April 20 — which made $200,000 available to local businesses and an additional $100,000 to nonprofit organizations — and loosening the terms on the county’s two revolving loan fund programs, the county’s economic development department has received 105 requests for applications and seven completed applications. Freeman-Buster told the commissioners that she estimated between 60 and 65 businesses were working on submitting loan applications.

Freeman-Buster added that another issue facing many small business applicants is incomplete financial documentation, which was a common issue even before the state government ordered the closure of nonessential businesses to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

“I think it’s the internal processes that are holding them back, and not keeping track of their financials and understanding that it is important to be up to date with information,” Freeman-Buster said.

District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) and District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) told Freeman-Buster that the feedback they had received from the local business community about the county government’s relief package had been overwhelmingly positive and supportive, though the commissioners added that they understood the concerns over the risk of disqualification as a result of being in arrears or lacking complete documentation.

“I think today is an opportunity for us to kind of sit together, put our heads together and figure out a way that we can keep the integrity of the process together and make it a little more smooth for them,” Bowling said.

Cammack-Spencer said she was “imploring the commissioners to really take a good hard look at” the issue.

“The fact of the matter is, they’ve got businesses and they owe the county money. So what?” Cammack-Spencer said. “The county ought to be able to work that out. Right now it’s about keeping their businesses up and running. If they had the money to pay off all the debt, they probably wouldn’t have to get a grant from the county to continue. So I, quite frankly, think this is one of the biggest problems that the minority community has.”

Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) responded that Cammack-Spencer had raised a “fair question” and said the board would take it under advisement, noting that in his own case, he was unfamiliar with the particulars of the application.

Collins encouraged business owners to send comments directly to the county commissioners about where they see shortcomings in the relief fund application process.

“This is the first time for us as well,” Collins said. “This is our effort to try to offer something to assist our community.”

Cammack-Spencer praised the Board of Charles County Commissioners for their prompt efforts to establish the relief fund and make it easier for businesses to apply for development loans during the crisis.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people … and looking at what’s happening in other counties across the state, quite frankly I am really pleased to work with Charles County economic development,” she said.

Within days of announcing the availability of the relief funds, the county’s economic development department posted on social media that the response had been “enormous” and encouraged business owners to get their applications in soon because the department would stop processing loan applications when the requests exceed available funds.