Bowling raises concerns about pace of business relief funds

District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) and Lucretia Freeman-Buster

Charles County Department of Economic Development staff went on the defensive earlier this week in response to questions from District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) over the disbursement of emergency relief funds to county businesses affected by the shutdown.

Lucretia Freeman-Buster, the county’s chief of business development, told the Board of Charles County Commissioners on Tuesday that so far her department has received 115 requests from businesses for loan and grant applications to help them with rent, payroll, and other necessities during the continued closure of nonessential businesses. Freeman-Buster said that 14 filled-out applications have been received, eight of which were complete and ready to forward to the department’s application review board made up of county employees and one business owner.

“We have processes in place to be able to deploy immediately the funds once the documents are completed,” Freeman-Buster told the commissioners. “And we have processes in place as well to get those documents … completed and sent out to the businesses to have them signed and sent back to us for deploying the funds.”

Of the remainder, Freeman-Buster said that Dr. Margaret Dureke, a business retention and expansion consultant working with the department, has reached out to 49 so far to help them complete their applications.

“[The] 49 [businesses] that I have talked to, their thing is the documentation that has been asked of them is too much in comparison with how much money they’re going to get at the end of the day,” Dureke said. “They feel that that’s too much being asked of them and they don’t think the amount of money is worth it. Some that didn’t apply, they do have the documents that are required, but they don’t feel that is the amount of money is worth their time. That’s what I’m finding.”

Bowling noted that the county commissioners approved the establishment of a COVID relief fund on March 31, making available $200,000 to local businesses and an additional $100,000 (subsequently increased to $200,000) to nonprofit organizations. At the same time, the economic development department also loosened the terms on the county’s two revolving business loan fund programs.

“Now we’re almost in mid-May and we still haven’t seen a dime go out,” Bowling said. “I’m not trying to point fingers, I’m trying to express the concerns from the business community that we … always should work forward to try to improve the process, and if there’s something a policy-wise that the commissioners can implement to help with that policy moving forward.”

The county’s COVID relief fund officially rolled out on Monday, April 20. Within days of the announcement, the 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.

“I understand there’s a process that we have in place, [and] that you have to follow the policy,” Bowling said. “But if we need to change the policy, I think we need to do that because people are getting bills, they’re just starting to pile up and pile up. And I’m hearing these personal horror stories and we want to help.”

“I’m not trying to put all on your shoulders, but if there’s something we need to do as commissioners to fix a policy, that’s something we need to hear from you all,” Bowling added.

Freeman-Buster responded that from her perspective the department’s process has been working “very, very well” and that the holdup was due to businesses submitting incomplete applications that required individual followup.

“The holdup is not on our part,” Freeman-Buster said. “I work long hours, evenings, nights just to get this together and my team is doing all we can to get the funds out there.”

Freeman-Buster noted that the Maryland Department of Commerce has been encountering similar problems to Charles County in terms of dealing with incomplete applications.

According to data released by the state on Friday, Maryland’s commerce department has so far approved 239 loans for just under $11 million, less than 15% of the total amount of money available in the state’s emergency relief fund. Many businesses have taken to social media to express their frustrations with the pace of the state’s relief program.

During the discussion, county economic development director Darrell Brown jumped in to ask Bowling to refer business owners who are reaching out to him with complaints to his department so that they can respond directly to their concerns.

“I know that there’s been traffic on Facebook, and we don’t follow Facebook like that,” Brown said. “What we’re doing is working with businesses that contact us directly and that are engaging in the process, that are calling us, that we are calling. … We are doing the actual work.”

“We’re not concerned about conversations on Facebook or anything like that, but if you know of any business that is concerned, you can help us by referring those businesses directly to Lucretia, and I’m willing to bet you she will return that call within 24 hours or sooner,” Brown said. “That is one way we can deal with some of these community concerns that you’re hearing about, but without referring them to us and they’re not engaging in the process, it’s not rational to think that we can help them.”

Grants for Nonprofits Include Sagepoint Foundation

During Tuesday’s virtual open session, Bowling appeared to draw an implicit comparison between the economic development department’s efforts and those of the Charles County Charitable Trust, which has already disbursed its original allotment of $100,000 in emergency funds to 21 local nonprofit organizations, and is in the process of drawing up plans for allocating the second round of $100,000 approved subsequently by the county commissioners.

Bowling asked Vivian Mills, the trust’s executive director, how many applications they had received, how many of those applications had been incomplete, and how much of its original allotment had been disbursed to date.

Mills responded that the trust had received 37 applications, all of which were complete, and that the trust was in the process of disbursing its original $100,000 allocation. Deborah Carrington, vice president of the trust’s board of directors, noted that the average dollar amount awarded was $4,000.

A comparison of the recipients of the trust’s emergency grants with previous recipients of annual grants listed on the Charles County Charitable Trust’s website shows that of the 21 recipients of the first round of emergency grants, two-thirds were also recipients of the most recent round of annual grants from the trust, and have also received funds in most or all of the trust’s previous annual grant cycles.

One of the seven nonprofit organizations receiving their first Charitable Trust grants through the emergency fund is Sagepoint Senior Services Foundation, the charitable arm of Sagepoint Senior Living Services, which operates a 165-bed nursing home in La Plata. On Thursday, the Maryland Office of Health Care Quality announced that it was fining the facility, which has the state’s highest COVID-19-related death toll, $10,000 per day, retroactive to March 30, until it brings itself into compliance with state health regulations.

The Charitable Trust awarded $5,000 to the foundation for the purchase of “personal protective equipment for frontline caregivers.”