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Editorial: ABQ’s small-business CARES grant program is right move, right now

It’s a small ask in the context of the $150 million the city of Albuquerque has received in federal CARES Act money. It’s even smaller in the context of Mayor Tim Keller’s proposed $1.15 billion city budget for the current fiscal year.

But the $10 million Councilors Brook Bassan and Trudy Jones want to earmark from CARES money for small-business grants would be a lifeline for many that have been decimated by COVID-19 and government-ordered restrictions imposed to combat the virus.

Under the Bassan/Jones proposal, businesses with 50 or fewer full-time employees (or part-time equivalents) that “have experienced financial hardship due to COVID-19” would be eligible to apply.

They won’t be hard to find. While the pandemic has been a moneymaking machine for many big companies – business is booming at Amazon – the “mom-and-pop” sector of the economy is on life support. At least for those who haven’t already thrown in the towel.

The latest unemployment numbers in Bernalillo County put the jobless rate at 12.7%. Money for small businesses would hopefully cut into that number – or at least keep it from going higher as we face nothing but uncertainty.

Jones is right when she says “I believe we could do much more (as a city), and that’s what we are looking to do.”

Bassan said the administration initially was resistant to the proposal, but discussions apparently are under way. Council President Pat Davis appears supportive. He said it is clear the city needs to help small businesses – including salons and others that haven’t been able to move operations outside – and believes the city can afford what Bassan and Jones are pitching.

“That’s a big chunk of our limited federal dollars; we just have to be sure it doesn’t put our city budget in jeopardy … but it appears we have room for it,” Davis says.

The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce weighed in with a letter to the mayor and councilors that says “small business grants are a reasonable, responsible and intended use of federal relief funding designed to help keep workers employed, businesses operating and our economy recovering.”

It’s good news that the city already has used some of its CARES money for targeted business support.

And Keller proposes using another $3.375 million of CARES money for business assistance in the new budget. His proposal would dictate how some would be spent – for instance buying PPE. But small entrepreneurs know best how to use these resources. They are the ones who pay the bills and sign payroll checks. And upping the number to $10 million does not seem too big an ask.

Meanwhile, given revenue projections, the administration’s overall budget proposal is a reasonable one. It keeps nearly 600 vacant jobs open, and there would be no annual cost-of-living pay raises. Police funding would tick up – with the administration wisely finding resources for its “community safety department” elsewhere and not from APD.

And the use of general fund money for bond payments that would have been covered by lodgers tax makes sense. Hotels struggling under the governor’s 14-day quarantine requirement for most out-of-state visitors and ban on large gatherings like banquets don’t generate a lot of lodgers tax money.

Keller reiterated earlier this month that the city’s municipal government is better off than most when it comes to finances, citing research that estimated the city’s revenue shortfall to be the second-lowest among 40 large cities, behind Boston.

Part of that is thanks to the city tapping and wisely using CARES money, which has helped avoid layoffs.

But the fact city government is getting by financially without layoffs doesn’t mean the same is true for “mom-and-pop” businesses. It’s time to do more for them.

It’s difficult to recall a candidate who didn’t extol the importance of small business as the backbone of the economy. This modest proposal is an opportunity to back up that rhetoric.

The council should approve this proposal. And the mayor should throw his weight behind it.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.