County supervisors late Tuesday night approved a million-dollar fund to provide emergency aid to Loudoun small businesses hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a $150,000 fund specifically for rural businesses with two or fewer employees.
The Business Interruption Fund will provide businesses grants of up to $10,000 to address day-to-day expenses like utilities, insurance, payroll, and rent. That money will come out of a fund normally used for attracting new businesses. Now the money will be dedicated to helping existing businesses stay afloat. It may help bridge a gap for businesses waiting to hear back about stalled federal Payroll Protection Program loans or other emergency funding.
The county money is not expected to last long.
“Certainly, the need is going to outweigh a million dollars,” said Executive Director of Economic Development Buddy Rizer. “I expect that we will run through this money and not even put a dent in those that apply, but this is where I thought we would start, and we would see from there.”
But unlike Congress, Loudoun County has to balance its budget—and has to finish the fiscal year in the black. County Administrator Tim Hemstreet warned supervisors that at this point, the county government is dangerously close to the break-even point. Usually, it closes the year with tens of millions left over.
“I cannot recommend any source of funding to do anything else with this, unless the board is prepared to either start taking things you’ve already funded and not funding those things—so that would mean capital projects—or you start getting into the operating budget, which is people,” Hemstreet said. “That’s where you are financially right now.”
Treasurer Roger Zurn reiterated that warning.
“June 5, we will have about $1.4 billion in taxes due. Everything will be predicated on how we collect that,” Zurn said. “Right now, we have such uncertainty, I can’t give you a good answer in terms of how much money we will end up with at the end of the fiscal year. So basically, in a very blunt way, we don’t know how much money we will have.”
“I also frankly need to say that some of these accounts that have unspent funding are also on the table to help us pay our bills, because the consequences of not doing that is not paying our employees and not meeting our debt obligations, which is absolutely off the table,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “… If we create an unstable government environment, that’s much worse for our businesses.”
To make the application process as fair as possible, the Department of Economic Development will open applications for a 72-hour window, opening at noon on April 29 and closing at noon on May 1, and later choose at random from all qualifying businesses.
According to data collected by the department, there are more than 7,700 businesses in Loudoun with four or fewer employees. Most of Loudoun’s 12,455 total businesses—12,170 businesses—have fewer than 100 employees.
To be eligible, businesses must have between three and 100 employees, demonstrate a revenue loss of at least 25 percent directly related to COVID-19, and less than $2.5 million in annual gross receipts. Grants are capped at $7,500 for businesses with up to 50 employees and at $10,000 for businesses with up to 100 employees. Supervisors approved the million-dollar fund unanimously.
Supervisors approved a second transfer, $150,000 from a fund for rural business incentives, to help out rural businesses with up to two employees that are members of the Loudoun Made, Loudoun Grown program.
Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) said that would help get money to rural businesses that mostly have contractors instead of employees.
Supervisors had more doubts about that fund—such as how to avoid potential scamming from businesses with no employees while keeping the grant process quick. Others were worried the program would be unfair to sole-proprietor businesses outside the rural area.
“There are plenty of sole-proprietor businesses that only employ contractors in other settings as well, and we just made the decision to exclude those from accessing funds, so I’m having a hard time looking them in the eye and telling them why this is different,” Letourneau said.
“I have to look at also what’s fair for the rest of the county, and I’ve got plenty of small mom-and-pop, one- and two-person businesses in the Town of Leesburg,” said Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg). “I could make the similar argument that they’re not going to qualify for the funds that we’re setting aside the million dollars [for].”
Supervisors approved that 6-2-1, with Umstattd and Letourneau opposed and County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) abstaining.
The shift from business incentive fund to business bail-out matches a change in focus at the Department of Economic Development. Rizer has dedicated all his staff to gathering information and helping businesses make it through the crisis.
The resources at biz.loudoun.gov, his new hiring portal, and his staff’s expertise have been popular with Loudoun businesses—Rizer said they’re seeing more than five times as much web traffic as last year, while adding more than 5,000 new businesses to the jobs portal.
The Department of Economic Development has already launched a website for the grants, LoudounBusinessFund.org.