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COVID Relief

Review finds errors in Jefferson County's loan-grant fund application process

Tourism officials find, correct the problems in time




(December 2020)
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Don Ward

(December 2020) – A grant program administered in Jefferson County, Ind., in late summer to assist local businesses and sole proprietors negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic has been held up because of errors later discovered in the scoring of applications of the 12 recipients. As a result, none of the $300,000 provided in the COVID-19 Response Program grant that was provided from state, local and federal agencies has been awarded, tourism officials say.
On Sept. 1, it was announced that Jefferson County was one of 42 Indiana rural communities to receive relief funding totaling $250,000, with a match of $50,000 from the Jefferson County Commission. The grants were jointly announced by Jefferson County Commissioners, Jefferson County Board of Tourism (JCBT), Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch and the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA). The commissioners and JCBT named VisitMadison Inc., the local tourism bureau, as the manager and oversight agency of the fund.
The grant to Jefferson County for loans to small and micro businesses to retain low-to-moderate income jobs is the first of its kind for the county. The funds can be used for working capital to continue operations or to support remote work.
In addition, the program is the first economic development tool to target all of Jefferson County during the COVID-19 pandemic. Past programs have targeted City of Madison businesses. Recipients range from sole proprietors to small corporations.
As part of the process to review and score grant applications, the commissioners and awards were based on highest scores from guidelines established by the state and county commissioners. An independent review committee reviewed applications and scores, and submitted scores to the local program’s coordinator for verification before sending the recipients to commissioners for approval.
The names of the 12 recipients in the first round of funding were announced Sept. 21. It included Keepsake Consignment, Darrell’s Tire and Alignment LLC, Cozy Acre Golf Complex, Brenda Shropshire, Seth Bickis, Clifty Garden Center, John and Lori Heitz, Kirsten Quick, Lee’s Locksmith Service, Steven Bickis, Attic to Basement - Sugar on Main, and Midwest Gym Supply.
However, since the announcement of the recipients, the oversight actions by VMI staff members found errors in the scoring, or in some cases the lack thereof, of the applications. The VMI staff then self-reported these errors to OCRA and, as a result, the funds have not been handed out, tourism officials said. VMI staff has since completed the scoring and selection process properly, according to VMI Board President Lucy Dattilo.
“When VMI self-reported to the state, OCRA, they also developed a plan to make all corrections,” Dattilo said. “I am proud of the work done by VMI staff member Holly Gibson to ensure that the grant applications were scored properly and that the integrity of the entire process was protected. We, VMI, are glad we could play a part in bringing $300,000 to the Jefferson County business community.”
Dattilo said the scoring of applications has

Dattilo

been completed correctly, however, some may now not qualify to receive the full $25,000. Love said the state has approved the revised scoring of applications, but they are waiting on the commission to complete the loan agreements with each recipient before the money can be released.
JCBT treasurer Tami Hagemier and VMI’s Gibson began jointly working to apply for the grant ever since it was first announced by OCRA back on April 1. The realization that small businesses may still suffer long after the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic was at the forefront of wanting to help bring relief to small businesses, according to a Sept. 1 Jefferson County Government press release. The release further stated that the grant will be turned into a Revolving Loan Fund program. As a result, it was named the 2020 Restart, Sustain, Succeed Revolving Loan-Grant Fund Program.
As per the requirements of the grant program, each recipient is to receive up to $25,000. The program affords generous terms in paying back the loans over three to five years, with the possibility of converting the loan to a grant if certain stipulations are met. In fact, half of the loans are awarded with zero interest and half as a forgivable grant after two years, as long as the program requirements are met.
In the case of Jefferson County’s loans, local officials put extra priority on awarding grants to veterans, women and minority owned businesses. OCRA officials agreed to support programming to help ensure diversity

•••

In other action at the regular monthly VMI meeting on Nov. 30, the board decided to table its vote to approve a slimmed down budget for 2021 in the wake of the 2020 pandemic’s impact to innkeepers’ tax collections and the cancellation of festivals and tourism events. VMI Executive Director Tawana Thomas presented a scaled down budget request that she had hoped to present later that evening at the JCBT meeting. But VMI board members wanted to see what transpired with innkeepers tax collections in early December and also wait and see what the JCBT does with regard to next year’s budget request. Last year, the JCBT provided $295,323 in operating funds and $189,000 for marketing. The VMI budget request for 2021 has been reduced by nearly half – to $170,000 for operations and $90,000 for marketing, plus an additional $34,900 to produce and mail its annual Visitor Guide.
Thomas said that after making projections for 2021, “We think we can operate on that. But that means we will continue to go with no weekend staff and no housekeeping and no other benefit items.”
Such a large reduction in marketing funds, however, “will be tight and tough,” said VMI Marketing Director Sarah Prasil. She and others discussed going back to the JCBT in mid-2021 to request additional marketing funds should the innkeepers’ tax collections pick up as the nation slowly recovers from the pandemic as a result of a vaccine.
“We saved $50,000 in marketing expenses in 2020 and about $30,000 in operational expenses,” Dattilo said in an effort to offset the loss in revenues in recent months. But at the October JCBT meeting, board members voted to release back to VMI the $40,000 that had been set aside early last year for a new music festival to be held in June. That event, like most others, was cancelled due to the pandemic. The VMI board voted to use the money to offset losses to its operational fund in 2020.
Once completed and approved by the VMI board, its 2021 budget request must go before the JCBT in December for approval.

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at info@RoundAbout.bz.


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