Chaos and exclusion

Chaos and exclusion

A small-business owner tries to figure out where she stands with state grant opportunities for urgent COVID-19 economic relief — an adventure that includes disqualifications for sole proprietors, contradictory advice from state agencies, and unwritten rules applied retroactively

BRATTLEBORO — On Aug. 19, the governor announced more money for an initial tranche of grants, announced at the start of July, which gave small businesses 10 percent of their revenue from 2019, up to $50,000. This is the collection of grants administered by the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) and the Vermont Department of Taxes.

“Governor Phil Scott, ACCD, and the Department of Taxes today announced an increase to the maximum grant award for Economic Recovery Grants for Vermont businesses negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the announcement said.

“The increase in the maximum grant award is available to businesses in the lodging, retail, hospitality, arts, travel and event affiliated sectors that have continued capacity constraints.

“Previously, businesses could receive up to $50,000 in grant funds. Now, businesses in eligible industries can receive up to an additional $100,000 in grant funding, for a total of $150,000 from the program. The increased maximum award is available both to new applicants to the program and to those businesses that have already received a $50,000 grant.”

At the time, these were the only state COVID-19 grants available. The best match for our bed-and-breakfast was the grant offered by the Department of Taxes but I could not apply, as Vermont could not manage to work out a way to include sole proprietors (who did not receive W-2s because they do not pay themselves with a paycheck as employees of a company, but rather as businesses receiving revenue). Even the federal government (?!) had managed to do so.

Within a day or two, the governor rolled out a grant program for women and minorities specifically to address the problem, at least for those of us who are women and/or minorities. There was a note that businesses could apply for only one of these grants. Fair enough.

Of course, I applied, and I was awarded 10 percent of my revenue, to be used only toward recouping the losses I'd suffered. It covered a bit more than four weeks of those losses, for which I was very grateful.

On July 17, the Vermont Sole Proprietor Stabilization Grant/lottery was announced by a different body, the CDBG. This grant allowed applicants to apply to be put into a lottery to receive funds of $5,000, $7,500, or $10,000 and, unlike the ACCD/Department of Taxes grants, these monies could be used to retrofit a business that needed physical changes in order to reopen safely, among other things.

I read all the rules and saw I was indeed eligible. I took part in the application webinar and asked lots of questions, including about grants I had already received which could only be used to recoup lost revenue due to COVID-19.

I was told I should absolutely apply and that there would be special considerations given to ensure that my business needs would be addressed. I did so. I disclosed the women-and- minorities state grant and the amount I received, and I was given instructions on how to state that this could not and would not be used for my retrofit project.

I received days of advice and instruction, and finally was told that my grant application was ready to submit. On Aug. 11, the CDBG confirmed: “You are all set and your application has been approved and moving forward to the lottery. Take care.”

But two days later, I received another email.

“Today we were informed by the state that you received some support through ACCD's grant for Women/Minority Owned Businesses,” it read. “Unfortunately a requirement under the VSPSP is that businesses are only eligible to receive one state grant at this time.”

This email included a screenshot from the FAQs for the ACCD/Department of Taxes/Women and Minority Grants - again, at the time, the only state grants available - which said businesses could apply for only one of them, obviously referencing only these grants.

Let's think about this.

At that time, the Vermont Sole Proprietor Stabilization Program had only been proposed, and the details had not been confirmed. Any of us who desperately needed help would have had to have had either a time machine or a crystal ball to know if that grant would even come to happen.

And we definitely wouldn't have known that the rules for the first tranche of grants would be applied to it. After all, the purposes for which businesses could use the grant were different, it was being administered by a different body, and the amounts were to be awarded by lottery. In addition, such a statement was nowhere in the eligibility requirements for the new grant.

* * *

Okay. So here is where I stand.

I'm apparently not eligible for the Vermont Sole Proprietor Stabilization Grant, administered by the CDBG, due to the post-submission/retroactive application of a rule lifted from the FAQ section of the ACCD/Vermont Department of Taxes/Women and Minority Grant processes, at the time the only grants available.

I've been told that the CDBG anticipates “a second round of funding for this program with revised eligibility will be announced in the near future. We understand and appreciate the time and attention you put towards applying to this program.” This, unsurprisingly, does not inspire confidence for me or, I suspect, for the at least six other small businesses whose owners have had the same experience.

Now comes the best bit.

All of us who, in good faith, applied for the Women and Minorities Grant in the first tranche are also not eligible to apply for or receive any of the new funding just added. Nope. Not a penny. Because tucked near the end of the recent announcement was the following statement:

“Also of note: the monies for the Women Owned Businesses with no employees have been exhausted.”

(I especially love how they've managed to eliminate “minorities” from this bit. Well done, Governor Scott, for your efforts to boost equality and justice in Vermont.)

If you've read through to the end of this, thank you. Please contact me if you have had this same experience - I know you are out there - or if you know someone who has. We cannot allow this to stand.

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