Article Published by Chicago Tribune, Aurora-Beacon News | View Article
Author: Steve Lord
Aurora is looking at three programs that could bring some monetary relief to local businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Alex Alexandrou, Aurora’s chief management officer, described the programs as “three prongs of relief,” and said the bottom line is “to get people much needed funds.”
The three programs, which combine relief from taxes, fees and a direct subsidy to businesses, have a total value of about $2.5 million.
City officials said they are being proposed after a lot of discussion at City Hall between staff and the mayor’s office, trying to balance the need of businesses with what City Hall can afford.
As staff presented the ideas for the first time to the City Council at a recent Finance Committee meeting, they were asked if the city can afford it.
“We have enough money to do this?” said Ald. Carl Franco, 5th Ward. “So, down the road … our residents aren’t picking up the tab?”
“We went round and round on that,” Alexandrou said in answer. “We felt we’re not in a situation to just cut a check. We wish this could be a lot more money than it is.”
The programs are: A holiday for three months of the food and beverage tax, eschewing the liquor license fees for one year for businesses that have on-site consumption liquor licenses, and development of a new program called the Coronavirus Emergency Relief Fund, or CERF, that would provide direct grants to businesses.
The holiday for the food and beverage tax will take place during a three-month period, either March through May, or April through June, and will be based on the same three-month period in both 2019 and 2020.
City officials will look at the three-month period in 2019, and compare in to the same three-month period in 2020. If a business did 60% or worse of the 2019 business in 2020, it would be eligible for the tax holiday in 2021. Officials estimated that program would have a value of about $1 million.
The liquor license waiver for on-site consumption businesses would affect 124 establishments, basically taverns and restaurants, said City Clerk Jennifer Stallings.
She said the city has two renewal times during a given year, one in April, and another in August. That means the liquor license either runs May through April, or September through August, depending on the business.
In April 2020, businesses were starting to close up, but Stallings said “most were able to pay,” although some “had to scrape it together, and were desperate for any relief.”
The clerk’s office extended payment of some of those licenses to Aug. 30, and then again in September to Nov. 30.
She said that all but six of the 124 businesses have been able to pay their licenses. She told aldermen that the city will work with all the license holders, but also said the six who have not paid have to either pay, or would not be eligible for the 2021-22 break from the license fee. The license break has an estimated value of $250,000.
The CERF Fund would have $1.2 million in it, about $1 million of which would come due to the budget surplus, and the other about $200,000 from money saved due to positions eliminated at City Hall, Alexandrou said.
Money from the CERF fund would be “a direct cash subsidy,” Alexandrou said, based on applications. The grants would be from $2,000 to $15,000. The fund would differ from the STABLE Fund offered early in 2020 – and still being administered – in that there would be no federal funds in it. That means there will be less strings attached, so more businesses can be eligible for the money.
“It’s more direct, easier, less bureaucratic,” Alexandrou said.
One thing that concerned aldermen is how the city might be able to differentiate between businesses that abided by the state’s coronavirus guidelines and those that did not. It was little secret that at one point, some restaurants and bars flouted state guidelines and stayed open. But others did not.
Ald. Scheketa Hart-Burns, 7th Ward, said she got many calls from constituents to report businesses that were staying open.
The situation was tough for cities because enforcement rested with the county health departments, and they would have to instruct the county sheriff to enforce the rules. The cities had nothing to do with enforcement, Aurora officials said.
Alexandrou said City Hall “clearly understood the frustration.” He called it one of the worst Catch-22 situations they have ever been in. It was a tug-of-war between wanting to retain businesses that were in trouble, and taking the proper public safety measures. Franco said the programs present the city with “the opportunity to make fair.”
Lyons pointed out that two of the programs – the tax holiday and the direct grants – will be based in part on how much business was done.