Board appropriates COVID-19 small business relief funds; expanded slate of partners will help distribute funding equitably

July 23, 2021

With $5.05 million made available by the State of Oregon to be used for providing economic relief to small businesses in Multnomah County, the Board of County Commissioners on Thursday, July 22, voted unanimously to appropriate the full amount for its intended purpose. 

The State originally received the funding from the federal Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. With the board’s vote, the money will pass through local chambers of commerce and other community-based organizations to be distributed to local businesses affected by public health restrictions and economic disruptions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

John Wasiutynski, who serves as Chair Deborah Kafoury’s COVID-19 economic relief and recovery coordinator in addition to his role as the director of the County’s Office of Sustainability spoke to the board on the matter. He noted that federal business relief initiatives, namely the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan program, did not distribute funding equitably across racial lines. A Brookings Institute study found that neighborhoods of color with the most cash-constrained small businesses received PPP loans last. 

“We know that there have been disparities in the ability of Black and minority business owners to get access to this funding. That is a disparity, of course, that precedes the pandemic, but was carried over into this particular relief funding,” he said.

In November 2020, Multnomah County received $7.6 million in CARES funding from the State to disburse to local small businesses impacted by restrictions related to COVID-19 by the end of the calendar year. The County added $400,000 of its own CARES Act resources to bring the total small business relief available to $8 million. 

Multnomah County distributed $5.3 million to licensed restaurants, bed and breakfasts, benevolent associations, food carts, caterers, and limited service restaurants harmed by the economic downturn. The County also teamed up with five partners — four culturally specific community-based organizations and one geographically specific organization —  to distribute the remaining $2.7 million of relief in ways that would reach historically underserved and overlooked cultural and geographic communities. 

For this recent round of funding, Wasiutynski said, Multnomah County will follow the same approach and principles that informed last year’s relief distribution efforts, while expanding the number of partners to  broaden the program’s reach. This round’s partners include the ​​Black American Chamber, Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber, Hacienda CDC, Philippine American Chamber, Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Oregon Native American Chamber, Native American Youth and Family Center and Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon.

The funds will provide direct grants to small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as loan forgiveness, commercial rent relief, and business support and technical assistance.

Especially notable in this allocation is a request to add $205,000 from Multnomah County’s contingency fund to support the program administration needs of the distribution partners. The State’s funding caps program administration costs at 5 percent. However, according to County Budget Director Christian Elkin, that is generally insufficient to cover the administrative burdens for the County’s partners, many of which operate with limited staffing.

“In an effort to minimize those barriers, the County needed to recognize that the work that we're asking these groups to partner with us on oftentimes is going beyond the normal scope of their traditional work, and we know that that administrative infrastructure is already strained based on the response to COVID and the partnerships that we're asking them to engage in,” Elkin said.

The step to ensure that the County compensates its partners sufficiently and appropriately is also a reflection of the gravity of their work and the necessity of their expertise.

“When we apply that equity lens, we don't want to further burden these organizations that the County is entrusting to perform outreach to the hardest-to-reach communities and [communities] hardest hit by the pandemic,” she said. Approving this budget modification would “then allow us to send 10 percent program administration to each of those organizations that will help us push these grants out.”

Once the County completes the contracting process with the partner organizations, most of the partners will issue open calls for applications. Small business owners in Multnomah County will also be able to find more information on the County’s COVID-19 Business Resources webpage soon.