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Columbia City Council approves $6 million dollar economic package for COVID-19 response

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Benjamin and Duvall 2019

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, right, talks with City Councilman Howard Duvall in Dec. 2019.

As Columbia continues to react to the growing COVID-19 pandemic, City Council on Friday approved a multi-million dollar economic plan it hopes will help small businesses and nonprofits, as well as bolster law enforcement and other public safety functions.

During an emergency meeting Friday afternoon, Council approved an economic sustainability plan it calls "A Resilient Columbia." The multi-pronged initiative would infuse several million dollars into various initiatives. It also allows bars and restaurants to avoid penalties on any hospitality tax payments the next few months.

As outlined by Mayor Steve Benjamin, the city is redirecting roughly $6 million from its water and sewer funds to the general fund for the economic package. City officials say the cash would come from interest earnings in the water/sewer fund.

Among the highlights, about $3 million will go toward public safety, for police equipment and officer recruitment and retention, with some of the funding also going to the fire department, emergency management, 911 operations and information technology. While the rest of the city has hunkered down in an effort to help slow the spread of the dangerous coronavirus that has rocketed across the globe, Columbia police officers have continued at a full schedule, and have been asked to do more, including enforcing the 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew City Council authorized earlier this week.

The city also is going to waive all penalties on any hospitality tax fee collections from bars and restaurants through the end of June. Hospitality taxes are a 2 percent fee on prepared food and beverages at restaurants across the Capital City. Proceeds from that fund are redistributed to support various nonprofit events and organizations.

Also, the city is waiving all fees for online credit card payments for people paying their bills via the internet. Meanwhile, city deadlines for business license fee payments have been backed up to May 15.

"We are just trying to take some of the burdens off folks," Benjamin tells Free Times.

Another $2 million from the package is going toward what the city is calling a small business and nonprofit stabilization package.

Of that, $1 million will be set aside for a loan loss reserve fund, through which the city would offer forgivable loans for businesses. The mayor believes business owners could use funds they receive through the city's forgivable fund to help get additional loan funding from private banks.

"The thought is, if we put up $1 million, then it leverages a larger amount of private sector money, because our money is first risk," Benjamin says. "So, we think that this $1 million could leverage at least another $4 million in private loan money."

The package also makes way for another $500,000 for an additional, zero interest forgivable loan program that specifically targets small businesses that have less than 100 employees. No franchises or chains could tap into that particular fund. The types of businesses targeted with that loan program would include restaurants, retail shops, barbers and salons, cleaning services, small event venues and more.

And there is $500,000 set aside in the package intended for critical nonprofit programs, including those that help senior citizens, address homelessness, help with paying rent, and so on. City officials have not specifically identified which nonprofits could receive that money.

There also is $250,000 in the plan specifically set aside for Senior Resources, expressly for the purpose of organizing and delivering meals to seniors during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Benjamin says the economic stimulus from the city is an effort to help businesses and nonprofits with which the city is already, in a sense, interconnected.

"Right now, our focus as a city is to do as much as we possibly can to have an inward facing economy," the mayor says. "How, with a limited amount of resources, can we help sustain essential components of our economy?"

Councilman Sam Davis, the longest tenured member of the body, was in favor of the economic package from the city. But he also said working cohesively with other governments and the private sector will be critical during the COVID-19 crisis.

"This is a step by step approach," Davis said. "It's taking a look at everything that is possible within our means. Also, there is going to be a push and a need to be more collaborative with other entities, private or nonprofit."

Councilman Daniel Rickenmann, perhaps Council's most openly pro-business member, said that the city's economic package is a "neighbor helping neighbor policy."

"What we are doing is a step, but until we can get back to some normalcy [in society], it's going to be a struggle," Rickenmann said, speaking of the local business climate amid the pandemic.

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