The Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce says small businesses in the area are hurting. Their time, Chamber CEO Bob Carl said on Monday, could soon be up.
Carl also said that Schuylkill County Commissioners and the consultants they hired earlier this year aren’t properly managing the more than $12.6 million in CARES Act funding received several months ago.
And while he said Monday during a press conference held in Pottsville that his intent wasn’t to “embarrass” the local elected officials, he didn’t mince words about the County’s priorities with this money. He said the county is putting itself first and not considering the “unmet needs” of local small businesses in Schuylkill County.
Schuylkill Chamber Calls Out County Commissioners on Lack of CARES Act Transparency
“The developing devastation to our businesses and non-profits cannot be overstated,” Carl said. “The Chamber staff and Board of Directors have extremely high concern for our small businesses and non-profits and the significant unmet need resulting from the pandemic in Schuylkill County.”
Carl was flanked during the press event by Chair of the Chamber Board of Directors Shannon Brennan. But it was Carl who did most of the talking.
He really zeroed in on the extremely flawed rollout of the County’s CARES Act grant program. Carl says the County Commissioners have consistently downplayed the severity of the COVID crisis as it relates to local small businesses.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Commissioners have been made aware of the strong concern the Chamber has for our small businesses and non-profits,” Carl said. “The Chamber feels the communications related to these processes have been very sparse and there has been a lack of transparency from the Commissioners and their administration. The lack of transparency is not healthy for our community.”
The “Unmet Need” of Schuylkill County Small Businesses
Carl says that via a statewide COVID grant assistance program, the Schuylkill Chamber has learned that small businesses locally need about $6.1 million to offset the losses suffered during the pandemic.
But the money currently estimated to be available from the remaining CARES Act funds in the hands of the County Commissioners doesn’t even come close to meeting that unmet need.
“Schuylkill County has serious unmet need as a result of the pandemic,” Carl said Monday. “The unmet need is compelling and is known by the County Commissioners. Despite the Commissioners’ assumptions that there is not an unmet need in Schuylkill County, the Chamber’s opinion is that there is a major unmet need in the county.
“Unfortunately, we are here today because we are concerned that we have not and may not prevail in this argument.”
Carl did reiterate that he believed the Commissioners were being led to believe the county’s small businesses weren’t in as much need as the Chamber says. He thinks the consulting firms the Commissioners hired are at least partly to blame for their thinking.
“We in no way wish to be perceived as attacking the Schuylkill County Commissioners and their administration,” Carl said. “We do believe their consultants’ advice has not been sound.”
Part of the reason the Commissioners may not be willing to accept the Chamber’s stance that small businesses in Schuylkill County are hurting as much as the organization says they are is their plan for the CARES Act money.
Carl revealed the details of a meeting that happened back on July 17, when the Commissioners and Chamber first met to discuss the CARES Act money. He said the County outlined its priorities for spending the CARES Act funds it received. And small businesses and non-profits, Carl said, were at the bottom of that list.
Instead, it was County first. And he said the Commissioners indicated they had millions of dollars in spending planned with that money. In fact, they had about $15 million in plans, which is more than they even received. So, conceivably, the County could end up spending all this money on itself and leaving small businesses out altogether.
Carl says the Commissioners priorities with the money are, in order:
- County Government needs
- Municipalities needs
- Business and Non-profit needs
“No specific details were given of what those County needs might be or justification for their necessity or prioritization,” Carl said. “The County Commissionrs seem to be convinced that their prioritization of ‘County First’ is correct.”
He did add that the County, at that July meeting, indicated they would develop an application for businesses to seek relief and at least a portion of the CARES Act money given to Schuylkill County.
Flawed Rollout of Schuylkill CARES Act Grant Program
So, why do Commissioners believe the “unmet need” of Schuylkill County businesses is being overstated? They point to the lack of applications the Commissioners received for CARES Act funding.
But the Chamber and Carl says the main reason why the number of applications the County received is so low is due to the poor rollout of the grant program.
It took more than a month for the County to get back to the Chamber and other organizations in attendance at that July 17 meeting. The other groups there were:
- Northeast Manufacturers Association of PA
- Schuylkill United Way
The Chamber finally got word on the evening of August 18 from Schuylkill County Administrator Gary Bender that the County finally developed an application for businesses to apply for CARES Act relief. An email was sent the following day to Chamber members. Carl said the Chamber even posted information on the grant program to its social media pages and website and offered help to non-members.
But that only resulted in about 105 applications being submitted.
We learned recently via Commissioners’ public discussion that 90% of those applications are flawed and it’s delaying any potential distribution of funds to businesses that qualify.
Carl says that’s due to the time frame that businesses had to fill them out and the application itself. The application – sent to businesses on Aug. 19 – was due back to the County by Sept. 2. That gave businesses just 2 weeks to fill it out and it wasn’t the easiest application to complete.
“The application was a bit cumbersome and was not extremely clear,” Carl said.
He blamed the consultants the Commissioners hired – Zelenkofske & Axelrod and Susquehanna Accounting and Consulting – who allegedly created the application.
“The Chamber clearly presented the common model being seen across the Commonwealth through our chamber and association networks, with seemingly limited enthusiasm,” Carl noted.
Decisions Coming Soon?
Carl said Monday that he was taking the unprecedented step of hosting a press conference to address the Commissioners’ approach to the CARES Act money partly because the Chamber was getting critiqued for its apparent lack of advocacy through the pandemic for its members and businesses in Schuylkill County, as a whole.
He pointed out several instances in which he reached out to Commissioners and worked with outside agencies and contacted other Pennsylvania counties to see how they’ve handled the money. Carl said he kept these efforts private out of respect to the Commissioners. He is a former County Commissioner.
But that all ended Monday. While he said it wasn’t an attack, it was definitely a call for the County government to act.
“We remain seriously concerned about the Commissioners’ approach, based on their consultants’ advice, which we believe does not adequately address this demonstrated unmet need, and will not ultimately serve Schuylkill County and the Commissioners’ constituents well,” Carl said. “We could no longer remain silent, for the members of the Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce and the entire Schuylkill County business and non-profit community. We clearly have concern of the ultimate outcome.”
At last week’s meeting of Schuylkill Commissioners, Gary Hess – who has openly criticized some of the CARES Act spending to date – said that businesses would hear about grant awards “soon”.
Savas Logothetides reached out to The Canary following Carl’s press event Monday. He’s been outspoken on the handling of the CARES Act money by the Commissioners. He released a statement from his position as an executive member of the Chamber of Commerce.
Logothetides said, “As an executive member of the Chamber of Commerce and an outspoken critic of the philosophical way in which the commissioners have handled federal CARES Act money, I can say that Mr. Carl hit the nail on the head.
“The application and process was flawed from the start. The means with which money has been allocated in a county first mentality is flawed,” he said. “The continued distractions like the purchase of the former Giant lot without proper planning has also contributed to this lackluster performance by the county commissioners. They need to stand up and make this right and they need to hold themselves and their consultants accountable for some potentially irreparable damage that has already been done to our small business and non-profit community.”
You can watch the entire press conference here. (Don’t adjust your screens, the resolution is a tad fuzzy.)
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