Jacksonville City Council Discusses Economic Relief For Small Businesses, Residents

May 8, 2020

The Jacksonville City Council held a pair of public discussions Friday on legislation that would get more money into the hands of small business owners and, potentially, residents.

District 5 Councilwoman LeAnna Cumber filed a bill that would allocate $9 million to small businesses and help them pay rent, mortgages and utilities.

The bill would act in a similar fashion to the $40 million program to help Duval residents, which the Council already passed.

Under Cumber’s bill, to qualify for a $2,000 payment card, a Duval County small business would need to:

  • Have no more than 100 employees as of February 29
  • Have been open for at least a year as of February 29
  • Have suffered a 25% or more loss in revenue due to COVID-19

Cumber said this legislation will provide a “shot in the arm” to businesses that can’t make their mandatory monthly payments.

“If you run a restaurant and you can't pay your rent or mortgage, you're not going to have your restaurant,” Cumber said.  “What that means is, that restaurant will then not be able to hire back furloughed employees or laid-off employees and there is a ripple effect down the road.”

While the aid would be available for sole proprietors, Cumber did say that it’s intended for businesses with employees to mitigate layoffs.

Councilmen Danny Becton and Al Ferraro said they would like to work on getting additional aid for sole proprietors.

The council members also discussed creating a tiered system for businesses based on the number of employees.

Meanwhile, Councilman Garrett Dennis questioned whether small businesses should get help with mortgages because there is already some leeway for them.

“The mortgage companies, the banks, they're deferring mortgages,” Dennis said. “They're giving extensions on mortgages and things like that. But if you’re a renter, you don't have that opportunity to call up your landlord or mortgage company.”

Cumber argued that it wouldn’t be fair to “punish” businesses that own their own buildings.

“Whether it's mortgage or rent, those are static numbers, and folks are just starting to try to open up,” Cumber said. 

Overall, the bill received a positive reaction from council members.

“There’s no perfect way to do this, but this is as close to perfect as I think you can get,” said Councilman Rory Diamond.

Earlier Friday, Dennis also held a meeting to discuss an emergency bill he filed that would amend the $159 million CARES package the City Council passed.

The amendment would take the $5 million set for waiving building inspection fees and open it up for other areas of need. Construction companies would still get the inspection fees waived, but the city would instead dip into a building inspection trust fund with over $17 million already in it.

City auditors said the fund already has more money in it than it should have, so taking out of it wouldn’t be damaging.

Dennis said the council needs to determine where the $5 million will be spent by the end of the year, or else give it back to the federal government.

Councilwoman Brenda Priestly-Jackson suggested the money should be used to expand the program from rent, mortgages and utilities for residents.

“The $40 million that we did for the mortgage and utility, it went so quickly that there are ever increasing needs for that,” Priestly Jackson said.

All of the available appointments to apply for aid were snatched up within a day of opening, Mayor Lenny Curry announced.

But Councilman Michael Boylan said he felt “uncomfortable” with the council’s dictating where the money would go, and said that direction should come from the mayor’s office.

“I think there always should be one captain to the ship in this process,” Boylan said.

Dennis disagreed, saying that as the legislative body of the city, the council holds the purse. He also said the money from the building inspection trust fund could only be used in limited ways, making it the ideal way to give back to contractors and developers who have been the ones building up the fund.

The bills will be debated and potentially tweaked in committees in the coming weeks. 

Contact Sky Lebron at slebron@wjct.org