Northampton County Council last month approved the latest round of $22.7 million distributed in local business grants backed by federal pandemic-relief aid.
But with $3 million still available for future grants, some members of council are calling for tightening eligibility rules to receive the money. Others argue the assistance is invaluable to covering costs amid an economy and employment situation still recovering from the wounds inflicted by the COVID-19 crisis.
The money awarded to date $10.7 million in CARES Act funding awarded to 767 businesses and $12 million from the American Rescue Plan Act that has gone to 802 businesses, said county Executive Lamont McClure.
“Grants to small businesses are the most direct form of economic help the county has been able to provide during the pandemic,” McClure, a Democrat re-elected last year, said in a statement. “The pandemic, and its effects on our economy, aren’t over yet. That’s why I’m urging county council to finish allocating the ARP funds they set aside to assist our small business owners.”
The Northampton County Council voted 9-0 on Jan. 20 to distribute $863,076 in small-business grants to 67 recipients. To qualify under the current rules for a grant of up to $15,000, a business must be located in Northampton County and have fewer than 100 employees. The grants can be used for rent, payroll and other operating expenses.
Citing the funding that has yet to be awarded, Councilman Ron Heckman, a Bethlehem Democrat re-elected last year, suggested not every business owner knows about the grants, leading to “some eating the apple twice, maybe going for three times” from the grant program. He said he’d like to see the money used for specific uses, like direct pay to employees or pandemic-related expenses like air filtration.
“As far as I’m concerned the parameters for me have changed after two years,” he said.
Councilman John P. Goffredo, a Slate Belt Republican elected last year, also called for refining the guidelines — set by a committee comprising four council members — though he supported January’s round of assistance.
“But with $3 million left I think we can be a little more creative with how we divvy out that money because there are businesses on here that have directly worked for me in that time and I know they’re earning and I know they’re not dealing with undue hardship; they’re dealing with normal hardship of operating a business,” he said. “And I think this is susceptible to abuse, if it’s not being abused already and I’m not accusing anybody of doing that. I’m just saying we’re giving out money a little too indiscriminately. And I think with the remaining $3 million, I think there should be an interesting conversation with how we go about spending that.”
Heckman and Councilman Kevin Lott, a Democrat from Hellertown, both asked to be taken off the committee that reviews the grant requests.
Democratic council members Tara Zrinski, from Hanover Township, and Kerry Myers, from the Easton area, both voiced strong support for approving the grants to be used however business owners see fit. Zrinski said the money is key to helping fund better wages, a vital ingredient for the local economy, and Myers said businesses face unexpected costs all the time that the money can help cover.
“I think small-business growth is important, and I think a strong local economy is what keeps Lehigh Valley sustainable,” Zrinski said.
Said Myers: “If it keeps a man in business, it keeps a man in business and that’s what we’re here to do.”
McClure’s administration since the Jan. 20 approval has shared messages of thanks from the grant recipients, including posting to Facebook public comments from Thursday night’s meeting of county council.
“Thank you, Northampton County, for understanding the trials and tribulations of navigating woman-owned, arts-focused small businesses during the pandemic,” Quinlan Irish Dance wrote. “Your grant monies helped us continue to offer high quality, safe and forward-thinking instruction to our students. Such support was essential to our ‘keeping doors open,’ as we were hit by a huge dip in student enrollment and an inability to perform live at traditional community and festival events.”
“Costs continue to rise, payroll is up, supply chain issues are a challenge, utility costs are up and every little bit helps us to keep our doors open,” said Andy Lee, owner of Braveheart Highland Pub in Hellertown. “As a small business owner that has received grants through the County, I can’t stress enough, how much they have helped my business.”
In response to council’s concerns, McClure told lehighvalleylive.com: “We are not out of the pandemic yet, and our small businesses are still hurting. I’ve fought from the very beginning of this health and economic nightmare for our small businesses and I’m not giving up on them now whether or not some commissioners on county council are throwing in the towel.”
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Kurt Bresswein may be reached at [email protected].