Local businesses will soon have access to a goods and services voucher program through the COVID-19 Resilience Support Program.
Council is using $100,000 from the Municipal Operating Support Transfer (MOST) for this program. Funds from MOST were used to offset the impacts of COVID-19 in 2020 and created a surplus that was transferred into the Emergency Operating Reserve.
Administration looked at a variety of business support options from communities across the province and presented these to council during the standing committee meeting on April 20.
The recommended modified voucher program allows business owners to choose based on their needs from a menu of options that could include training, accounting or bookkeeping services, material improvements, or what is needed to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions, and more.
Coun. Tyler Waugh questioned if these funds should be used in a recovery program instead of a relief program.
“I’m looking to the end of the summer or the fall when federal programs are set to stop, provincial programs are set to stop, some of these relief programs are scheduled to come to an end then. From a local perspective, can we set this money up potentially to be a longer runway for some of the businesses that need a bit more time to adapt to the post covid world?” Waugh said.
Coun. Ryan Maguhn agreed but also added that businesses are struggling right now and if the Town’s support program takes too long the recovery program may be too late for some businesses.
“I’d like to see some of those more vulnerable businesses get the funding they need sooner,” he said.
Waugh also pointed out that including some eligibility criteria is crucial to ensure businesses that need it most are receiving funds through the program.
CAO Emily Olsen said a draft of the voucher program would entail eligibility criteria, the scope, the program, and application instructions. The framework would come forward to council for approval before going out to the public, she added.
Hinton’s support program will be open initially to businesses with no fewer than two employees, unless the business has a physical place separate from their residence, and no more than 40 employees. After 60 days, any business will be able to apply for the voucher program.
Coun. Dewly Nelson noted that the concern with a first come first serve approach is that businesses with readily available accountants and resources would be the first to maximize this program while they may not be the ones that need it most.
“I look at the types of businesses we probably want to target first and I don’t think it’s the major corporations,” Nelson said. He also said home based businesses would not have the same impact by COVID-19 restrictions either.
There are currently approximately 600 to 650 registered businesses in Hinton, said Scott Kovatch, Hinton’s economic development officer.
Council decided that the support program should exclude vouchers for rent, mortgages, and wages.
“Both rent and wages are things that have been subsidized through different programs,” Nelson said. “I think our role is to as much as we can cover off things that aren’t readily covered by other grants.”
Ostashek had concerns with struggling businesses not being able to use the program to cover taxes or utilities even though other businesses could be reimbursed for things when they don’t really need the support.
Through the program, businesses can apply for costs incurred due to COVID-19 retroactively to April 1, 2021. A cap was set on the grant amount at a total of $750 per business.
By taking off $250 per business from the original proposed $1000 cap, the reach of the program extends to an additional 50 businesses, said Maguhn.
The support program will be limited to businesses that were operating prior to March 2020 when the pandemic began, and maintained a business license throughout 2020 and 2021.
“The idea is that we are supporting businesses that were in place and through COVID-19 had to change their business and adapt. If a brand new business opened in the middle of COVID-19, it’s likely because there was an opportunity for lower rent or different things they took into account when they opened,” Nelson said.
Maguhn was worried about the lack of information on the newer businesses and felt this limitation would prejudge businesses without knowing the impact.
The program will have a mandatory review date prior to Nov. 15, 2021, at which point council can update the program or utilize any leftover funds for different initiatives.
The review date will come roughly one month after the municipal election and coincide with budget deliberations.
The intention of the program is to be flexible and understanding of the needs of Hinton’s business community, allowing approval for items that may not be explicitly expressed in the list of options, stated administration’s report.
Last year, the Town of Hinton provided relief to local residents and businesses through tax and utility deferral of payment and penalties to Aug. 31, 2020.
Funds available in the Emergency Operations reserve, originally from the MOST grant, come to approximately $169,060.
Through the 2021 Budget process, Council made motions to utilize $500,000 of the $700,000 available to reduce the tax rate over the next three years. Another $30,800 was used to increase the funding provided to the Chamber of Commerce.
Additional funds from the subsequent surplus determined through 2020 year-end financials can be moved into this reserve at a later date to support local business programs should oversubscription occur, as well as be earmarked for resident support initiatives that include Recreation Centre rate reduction, and other programs, according to administration’s report.
More information on the use of the additional 2020 surplus is being prepared for May, to accompany the year-to-date financials for 2021, and will be fully confirmed through the 2020 audit planned for completion in June.
Masha Scheele, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hinton Voice