By Pam Zubeck
Colorado Springs won’t immediately follow Denver’s lead in providing direct financial assistance to help small businesses weather the COVID-19 storm.
But El Paso County is still considering some kind of relief, though talks are just getting started.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration announced March 19 the city and county of Denver will seek to identify, develop and implement local programs to support Denver business owners and their employees affected by the city’s response to the virus.
The city is creating an initial $4 million relief fund to bolster small businesses with the goal of helping those most directly impacted by COVID-19 disruptions. The idea is to help businesses so they can support their employees. To that end:
• Denver Economic Development and Opportunity is setting up an emergency relief program to provide cash grants up to $7,500 to qualifying small businesses. The highest priority will be the industries most impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, such as the food industry. These businesses may have had to temporarily close, are struggling with paying their rent and utilities, or have had to lay off staff.
• An existing micro-loan program will be refocused to support small businesses’ stabilization efforts. Current recipients of loans from DEDO will have the ability to temporarily defer loan payments, should they need to.
• The city will work in partnership with Mile High United Way and Downtown Denver Partnership to distribute the cash grants and micro-loan funds. The city and DDP are also working together on expanding business relief funding and will be reaching out to the business community to amplify the impact of the small business support through donations.
• Grants of up to $1,000 will be made to individual artists who live in Denver whose incomes are taking a hit due to cancellations of events and classes. The mechanism will be the existing IMAGINE 2020 Artist Assistance Fund and Denver Arts & Venues.
• The Denver Department of Finance will waive the 15 percent penalty for late payment of February and March sales, use, and occupational privilege taxes due March 20 and April 20, 2020. The return must be filed and funds remitted within 30 days of the due date. DOF will evaluate extension of the waiver on a month-by-month basis.
Mayor John Suthers’ spokesperson Jamie Fabos says the city is facing challenges in dealing with expected downturns in sales tax revenues, on which the city relies almost exclusively for its general fund operating budget. That budget funds police and fire, public works, parks and other basic services.
“While we are committed to first making budgetary adjustments that will have the least impact on the public, we fully expect to have to make significant budget reductions this year,” she said via email.
“Of course restricted revenues — Stormwater and 2C, for example — will and must remain dedicated exclusively to those efforts. The general fund, however will need to be adjusted based on an anticipated downturn in sales tax revenues.”
That said, Fabos notes the city has been in contact with state and federal governments “and are doing all we can to ensure that Colorado Springs and its local small businesses are prepared and eligible for the dedication of the federal relief package and/or any state resources.”
She also said the city is partnering with Support The Springs — a campaign started by several local creative organizations/industry professionals.
“The website is launching fully soon — it’s meant to encourage people to support local businesses in non-traditional ways,” she says.
Board of County Commissioners Chair Mark Waller says “everything is on the table” for assisting in an economic recovery from the COVID-19 impacts.
He notes the county has a “pretty robust reserve right now,” but stopped short of proposing grants to small businesses. Rather, he noted the Small Business Administration has declared Colorado an emergency disaster zone, which qualifies businesses to seek low-interest loans.
“In these circumstances,” he said, “there will be no silver bullet.” Rather, he predicted a combination of efforts will coalesce around propping up those most devastated by the mandatory closures caused by the virus.
Commissioner Stan VanderWerf said he’s putting together a coalition that will find ways to support businesses and their employees during an economic recovery. (A meeting was held March 20.)
Players include the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, Small Business Development Center, the county and the city of Colorado Springs.
“We have got to get the economy kickstarted and up and running,” he said.
While more formal programs are pending, he says the initial message is for people who have the means to buy local, “so we can produce demand that signals to companies to hire people back.”
The county plans to ask voters in November to allow the county to retain $3.5 million in excess funds collected in 2019 under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. While that money wouldn’t be freed up until after the election, it could be a source of relief funding, VanderWerf said.
Of course, the county also foresees a reduction in its own revenue from the economic devastation caused by sequestering due to the virus, and he said the county finance department is running various scenarios for future spending.
But VanderWerf emphasized the county has “absolutely [no plans] whatsoever right now” to lay off workers, and county services remain fully functional, though some services have been largely moved online.
One way to help people financially, he noted, comes via the waiving of penalties for late payment of taxes and fees.
“We need to do everything we can to reassure the public that the county is trying to do everything we can,” he said.