Schuylkill County totally botched its management of the $12.7 million it received from the federal CARES Act.
But its mismanagement of this largess didn’t hurt county government one bit. For the local small businesses who hoped to get in on some of that action, however, they’re getting screwed.
On Wednesday, the County Commissioners approved a motion to pay another company up to $65,000 more than it originally agreed to spend to help manage the money in that fund. That’s at least 6 more Schuylkill County businesses that won’t get any help recovering the losses they incurred from unconstitutional restrictions against running their business.
Schuylkill County Botched the Secret COVID Business Grant Program
The reason for needing to spend this extra money to manage the CARES Act funding? Commissioners heard on Wednesday that partly falls on the small businesses who caught wind of the secretive business grant program.
According to Paul Buber, Schuylkill County’s Finance Director, a lot of businesses applying for a grant submitted an incomplete application.
But, to be fair, that wasn’t the only reason. Buber said the county needs to expand its contract obligation with Susquehanna Accounting and Consulting Solutions Inc. because of what he says are constantly changing rules on how it can be spent.
“After the CARES Act funding and the initial guidelines were released, those guidelines were subsequently amended or changed,” he said, which required additional work.
We’re unclear on how these rule changes on how to spend the CARES Act money impacted the County government. So far, the Commissioners have had no problem finding ways to spend it. They’ve spent more than half of it on the following:
- An upgrade to the County 9-1-1 system
- New touchless faucets and toilets at the Courthouse
- A new HVAC system at Schuylkill County Prison
But then Buber mentioned the other reason the County needs to spend this extra money to manage the dwindling pot of CARES Act money: those pesky small businesses, non-profits, and municipalities. They finally found out about the secretive grant program the County didn’t really want them to know about and then applied to get some of it.
“In connection with the applications the County has received,” Buber explained to Commissioners this week, “Many of those applications were incomplete and did not contain all of the required requested information. There was a lot of follow-up work that was required.”
He said those errors weren’t anticipated when it first drew up its initial contract with Susquehanna Accounting and Consulting Solutions Inc.
Now, to appear like the County government is the good guy here, Administrator Gary Bender jumped on to Buber’s statement. He said the County could have just rejected the incomplete applications.
But that wouldn’t be right, he said. So, the County leaned on this outside agency for help tracking down missing information on applications for some of the CARES Act money.
“It was the quality of the applications,” Bender said. “Not criticizing anyone but again if it’s incomplete, normally it gets rejected. We did not want to do that here.”
A representative from this outside company attended the Commissioners meeting Wednesday. He told them that 90% of the applications the County received required some form of follow-up. The County apparently received between 130-140 applications for CARES Act aid.
The main reason for most of the delays in processing these applications, and the need for so much follow-up work, is the lack of supporting information that confirms what a business claimed as losses on its application for aid.
So, why did nearly every application for a CARES Act grant from Schuylkill County require so much follow-up work? It’s easy to say, as it was on Wednesday, that businesses and non-profits aren’t used to filling out grant applications. Grant applications are tedious and require a certain level of work. That’s true.
But put yourself in the position of a small business owner who wondered when (or if) the County would create a grant program like so many other counties did. You wait and wait and wait … all the while, you’re watching the County burn through massive sums of this money … and then finally, you hear that there is grant program.
You don’t hear about it from the County. To this day, Schuylkill County never formally and publicly announced that a program existed. Instead, Commissioner Boots Hetherington alluded to it in a passing comment at one meeting. (READ: Some Counties Created a Grant Fund for CARES Act Money – In Schuylkill, You Need to “Contact Mr. Bender”)
Then, we learned from a member of Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce that an email circulated among its members that the County was semi-formally opening up some of the funds to businesses. But you only knew about that if you were a Chamber member or read The Canary. (READ: Schuylkill County Launches COVID Small Business Grant Program – But No Public Announcement)
But that email informed businesses they only had 2 weeks to get their applications to the Courthouse. So any business that wanted to apply for a grant had to put a rush on it. And that, obviously, led to errors and missing information.
It’s now been more than a month since the deadline and they’re still trying to sort out the details. Perhaps, just throwing this out there, the County could have given businesses more time to complete these applications. Not once did the County accept any blame for this major delay.
Rather than waiting until the last minute to release (in private) details about this grant program to only select businesses, the County could have opened up the program a lot sooner. They’ve been sitting on this money for months, after all.
That’s how Commissioner Gary Hess feels, according to his comments on Wednesday, questioning the need for an expanded contract with these consultants. Hess said he believed this CARES Act money was meant to help businesses, non-profits, and municipalities “get through to the other side” of the pandemic response, or to “throw them a lifeline,” as he put it.
“This is the end of October. This is why I’ve been asking questions on how we can get the money out there. And now we’re on the 11th hour,” Hess said.
He voted against amending the contract with this consulting service but it still passed as Commissioners Hetherington and George Halcovage approved it.