None of the council members opted to put forward a motion to establish the program, which could have allocated up to $150,000 of federal COVID-19 relief funding for qualified small businesses in the city of Bellaire, according to the proposed item on the council’s agenda.
Key to the decision was a simple policy question from Mayor Andrew Friedberg to the rest of the council: “Do we keep that money in the general fund or distribute that into the community?”
Keeping the money in the general fund would mean using the money to offset city expenses incurred between March 1, 2020, and Dec. 30, 2020, to deal with COVID-19 or were not accounted for in the budget most recently approved as of March 27, 2020.
Besides small-business grants, other eligible expenses for the money include public safety and public health payroll expenses, personal protective equipment/supplies for COVID-19 prevention and precautions, and possible grant programs for individuals to prevent evictions.
Council Member Catherine Lewis was reluctant to distribute money solely for small businesses.
“A lot of the taxpayers of Bellaire, whether that’s businesses or homeowners, have experienced losses of various kinds during this time,” Lewis said. “If we just leave it in our budget, and defray some of our expenses, we’ll all get a benefit from that.”
Other council members concurred with Lewis while Mayor Pro Tem Gus Pappas raised concerns about the fairness of the proposed first-come, first-served approach to the small-business program.
Pappas additionally expressed conflict about what message the council’s no vote would send to the public.
“If we have money to give out, I’d like to be on the side willing to give that money out,” Pappas said.
Still, the council came to agree as a whole that the money could be used across other areas of need. The council’s inaction doesn’t preclude it from creating a future small-business recovery fund grant program, should it feel it is needed.
In total, Bellaire is eligible to receive over $1 million from Harris County’s $28.5 million Small City Assistance Program, which provides COVID-19 financial assistance to cities with a population of less than 500,000 in Harris County. Those funds come from $426 million the county received from the Coronavirus Relief Fund, established through the $150 billion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.