Updates April 13 at 11:28 a.m.

Due to an overwhelming number of applications received, the Houston-Galveston Area Council has paused the acceptance of new applicants for Harris County's Small Business Economic Assistance Loans Program, indefinitely, H-GAC Director of Communications Meagan Coughlin said in an email April 13.

Updated April 9 at 2:40 p.m.

Small-business owners can now apply for Harris County's Small Business Economic Assistance Loan Program as the program website launched April 9 at 2 p.m., Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia announced in a virtual press conference April 9.

According to Garcia, businesses that qualify for the program include those that are located in Harris County, are in good standing with the Harris County Tax Office, have been in business for at least one year and have no more than 500 employees. Businesses that are not eligible for the program include nonprofits, sexually oriented businesses and liquor stores, among others, Garcia said.

"It is a first-come, first-served basis," Garcia said during the press conference. "Ten million [dollars] is a lot of money, but when you spread that over Harris County [which has] over 4 million people and a high number of businesses ... $10 million is not a lot of money. I hope that for those of you that do apply and are qualified, it will mean that you are able to keep your doors open and keep your employees employed—that's the goal of this program."

As part of the application process, business owners will be required to provide proof of the effect the coronavirus pandemic has had on business operations, as well as two years' worth of tax returns, business and personal financial statements, and future projections. Any money received may only be used for certain expenses such as payroll and benefits.

"As our health care professionals and so many people across the country have been looking to flatten the curve of the spread of the [corona]virus, this program is intended to flatten the curve of unemployment and bankruptcy," Garcia said. "We're excited that this program is here [and] flattening the unemployment curve is critical to our long-term success. And I believe that by helping the few businesses that we are going to be able to help, that we will be able to strengthen our economy through the weeks and months ahead so that we can become one of the first to come out of this pandemic in good standing as it relates to our various economic sectors."

Garcia added business owners can apply for both the Harris County's Small Business Economic Assistance Loan Program in addition to the Small Business Administration program as the two are not mutually exclusive. For more information, visit www.harriscountyloan.com.

Posted April 7 at 6:25 p.m.

In partnership with the Houston-Galveston Area Council, Harris County launched a $10 million Small Business Economic Assistance Loan Program on April 7 to help small businesses on the road to recovery.

Led by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, the program aims to help businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic by offering zero-interest, forgivable loans up to $25,000 to meet ordinary and necessary operating expenses and obligations.

"Obviously, we can't bail out our entire county's economy—we can't, we're not set up for that," County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during the meeting. "That's why the federal government is trying, and as we all assess their package and read the analysis, we know that it'll be hard depending on how deep this crisis goes for any level of government to fully bail out the economy; that's why it's so important for folks to stay home so we can get over this quickly and turn the economy back on."

Precincts 3 and 4 Commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle requested voting be delayed on the item until the next court meeting, citing concerns about some of the unknowns still surrounding the program.

"I understand the need for speed, but if we're talking about a program that has a forgiveness component to it—which makes it ultimately a grant—is this not something we could bring back ... in a week so that we could have some public input on that component?" Cagle said. "I'm in favor of having the loans to our businesses; I'm supportive of the H-GAC component; but I've got some serious concerns on that one aspect."

However, the motion failed, and the program was approved in a split 3-2 vote, with Radack and Cagle dissenting.

"We still don't know whether we will be reimbursed by the federal government; I'm hopeful that we'll find ways to accomplish that," Garcia said. "But in the end, you keep people employed; you keep their doors open; you allow them to continue to pay their rent—those are all things that come back to our bottom line."

According to Garcia, the $10 million in loans will be split equally among the four county precincts, and eligible businesses will be able to apply for the program through the H-GAC website. The county will also look into incorporating components such as low to moderate income and equity as part of business eligibility.

"This is ... local taxpayers' money; we don't have a right to just give it away—especially without clear specifics and guidelines," Radack said before voting against the item. "As far as I'm concerned, this action discriminates against hundreds of thousands of Harris County taxpayers and citizens."

In the same spirit of getting Harris County residents back on their feet, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis proposed the creation of a Harris County COVID-19 Relief Fund that could provide rent, utility and food access assistance to county residents affected by the coronavirus who are not otherwise eligible for existing county assistance programs. The program would be funded by county general revenue and include up to $15 million, Ellis said.

"We are dealing with an unprecedented economic challenge. Some people are comparing the unemployment rate to being as high as it was during the Great Depression—hopefully that does not end up being the case," Ellis said. "But we have some people who will run into problems that may not be covered under issues with federal money that comes in because of the strings attached."

Before establishing the relief fund, however, Ellis requested the Commissioners Court's Analyst Office be tasked with reviewing the administration of COVID-19 relief funds in other jurisdictions, such as the city of Austin's RISE fund, to identify the most common criteria and best practices for such funds. Following a 3-2 vote, with Radack and Cagle dissenting, the report is expected to return to the court at the next scheduled meeting.