By LEE J. KAHRS

MONTPELIER — The Vermont house has passed a second aid package of Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) to support struggling businesses and combat homelessness.

The $137 million economic development package was passed by the House on June 19 and heads to the Senate for approval. The Broadband, Connectivity, Housing, and Economic Development bill, H.966, contains $16 million in services for homelessness that were added in amendments and supported by Commerce & Economic Development Committee and Human Services Committee, respectively.

The amendments included $90 million in business recovery grants:  

$70 million recovery grants, in addition to the $70 million in S.350, another aid package passed last week.

$5 million for working lands and agriculture and wood forest industries

$5 million in grants to women-owned and minority-owned small businesses

$3 million to highway contractors

$1.5 million to outdoor recreation businesses

$5 million to assist the creative economy

$3 million in marketing support for businesses such as restaurants, downtowns, and tourism properties

$3 million for business technical support

$5 million in grants to establish a program to help restaurants and farms create jobs and fight food insecurity

$20 million to provide hazard pay to frontline workers.

Rep. Stephanie Jerome (D-Brandon, Pittsford, Sudbury) serves on the House Commerce & Economic Development Committee. She said the goal with this bill was to help businesses that have experienced a 75% loss in business or more due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We wanted to make sure we were going to help all Vermonters, not just a select few,” Jerome said of the bill. “We wanted to get this money out to as many businesses as possible.

Most businesses were closed for months once the pandemic began in mid-March, and many are in the early stages of re-opening as the state weighs the risk of infection versus the need to do business. With the passage of S.350 last week, the Legislature has approved almost $200 million in relief funds for businesses and nonprofits. But Jerome said much more should be done.

“It breaks my heart because it sounds like a lot of money, but it’s not enough to help every single business that needs it,” she said Monday. “It’s not going to cover inns and hotels, the weddings that have been cancelled, the tent companies, the restaurant industry… I think there are a lot of businesses that will be helped, but it’s just not enough.”

The $5 million for the creative economy is there to help the struggling arts industry, particularly the large arts venues like the Paramount Theater in Rutland and the Flynn Theater in Burlington, which had to cancel their seasons.

The $3 million for restaurants, tourism and downtowns is there to help publicize what Vermont has to offer Vermonters in the state since out-of-state tourism is at a pandemic standstill.

The $3 million for business tech support is to help businesses reconfigure their spaces to allow for social distancing and still keep their doors open.

The biggest chuck of the economic development funds is $20 million for frontline workers such as healthcare and emergency response workers. But Jerome said that was a disappointment as well because she feels so many more jobs can be included under the umbrella of “frontline workers.”

“We have to adhere to the Federal guidelines, which are very narrow right now,” she said. “We couldn’t include grocery store workers, convenience store clerks, and I don’t think childcare workers are included.”

Homelessness

The $16 million to aid homelessness in the bill will:
• Expand the Vermont Rental Subsidy program 

• Assist with housing navigation and case management services

• Fund financial assistance to Vermont households living in motels to help them enter safe housing arrangements

• Supplement the General Assistance motel voucher program

• Capitalize a housing risk pool for landlords to encourage rentals to individuals experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity 

“The number of households living in state-supported motels or hotels grew from approximately 300 to over 1400 over the course of two months, directly related to the COVID-19 public health emergency,” noted House Human Services Committee Chair, Representative Ann Pugh (D-South Burlington) in a press release. “Securing safe, stable housing opportunities for all Vermonters is essential. The COVID-19 pandemic has made housing in shelters incompatible with maintaining public health; increased the number of households experiencing homelessness and in need of housing supports to obtain or maintain safe, stable housing; and has created a demand for diverse social services to safely house these vulnerable Vermonters.”

Business to-do list

Any federal CRF funds must be spent by Dec. 30, 2020, or the state risks losing funds. Jerome wants to remind business owners that they need to apply for federal Pandemic Unemployment Insurance through the Department of Taxes website. She also wants to make sure business owners know that the deadline to apply for the Small Business Association’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is June 30. A key change to the repayment terms makes the PPP even more attractive. Previously, applicants had eight weeks to pay back a PPP loan. Now, they have 24 weeks.

“That’s a big change,” Jerome said. “I think that could be a lifesaver,”