Dover looks to help small businesses during pandemic

DOVER — Dover City Councilman David Anderson said one just needs to take a short walk around downtown Dover to see that small businesses are facing big trouble amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s why Councilman Anderson decided to bring an agenda item before the Council Committee of the Whole’s Legislative, Finance and Administrative Committee on Tuesday night that would support a program calling for the city of Dover to set aside money and allow for transfers of up to $5,000 for locally owned small businesses to have their utility account payments deferred.

The proposed program, called the Dover Strong COVID-19 Relief Fund, would cover up to $5,000 of small businesses’ electric and other city utility bills without risk of disconnection, while they are recovering from the economic downturn. They would be allowed up to two years to pay the money back to the fund.

The motion carried unanimously among the Legislative, Finance and Administrative Committee and will now go for a vote before the full City Council at its Jan. 11 meeting.

If council votes to support the Dover small business relief fund, city staff will be directed to finalize the application materials and institute the program for allocations beginning Jan. 12 and running until all funds are awarded.

“We all know that the times are very challenging for businesses of all sizes, for our residents, for our citizens,” Councilman Anderson said. “Fortunately, there is a fair amount of aid for residents and big businesses. If they need to, they can negotiate and get a retention rate. But we see the casualties when it comes to small businesses.

“We do have a fund that has more money than standard that we have plans to return to citizens and businesses. This is just going to be one way of handling that for those in both needs who are shut down because of COVID. The staff has done a tremendous job of developing a program, and it was a pleasure working with them.”

The $50,000 in utility relief will come from the city’s Electric Utility Rate Stabilization Reserve Fund.

Matt Harline, serving as the interim city manager for Dover, noted that Kent County has lost 14 businesses already during the pandemic.

“The risk is all in the Electric Rate Stabilization Reserve Fund,” Mr. Harline said. “The purpose of that fund is to maintain affordable rates, so it’s the proper fund to tap for this process. Fifty-thousand dollars will keep us … even if we lost all of it and nothing was returned, the fund would still remain well above the minimum as per policy.

“I think it can have some positive impact on small local businesses that are looking for ways to stay viable.”

The utility relief program is designed to defer payment on current, recently outstanding (up to 60 days) and future regular monthly electric, water, sewer and sanitation utility bills for local businesses that have their main operation center within the Dover Municipal Electric service area and have been impacted by COVID-19.

Existing bills, as well as future bills from electric meter reads until Oct. 31, 2021, would be eligible.

No funds will be sent to the businesses, but if their application is approved, their bills would be deferred until Jan. 11, 2023, when all bills would become due.

The businesses eligible to receive the utility relief would have to meet these criteria:
• It must be a viable (not bankrupt or permanently closed) business with a current city of Dover (where applicable) or other municipal business license (where applicable) and state business license.
• It must have been current with utility bills March 1, 2020, or not been on the list to be disconnected for nonpayment more than once during the period March 1, 2019–Feb. 29, 2020.
• It must demonstrate proof of impact of COVID-19 as determined by the county, state or federal government by qualifying for other COVID-19 relief.
• It must be a small business with 35 employees or fewer (actual individuals, not 35 full-time employees).
• It must have a physical location of operation and be a commercial customer of the city of Dover electric utility.
• It must have had all property tax and other tax payments current as of March 1, 2020.

The city may award up to $5,000, but if history suggests that the customer will not likely need $5,000 in funds for the utility (up to 100% of the previous year’s usage for the period of the deferment) the award may be limited to less than $5,000 to make funds available to more businesses.
The program will be administered by the city’s Customer Service Department with oversight from the Finance Department.

Patricia Marney, director of the city’s Customer Service Department, said the applications will take no more than five business days to process. She said she believes that there are around 55 small businesses in Dover that could likely qualify for the relief program.

“Credit will be applied to the outstanding utility bills,” Ms. Marney said. “No funds would be dispersed to the business itself. This can only be used for the utility bill.”

Jonathan Contant, a member of the Legislative, Finance and Administrative Committee, is in full support of the small business utility program.

“I think this is a great idea,” said Mr. Contant. “I know a lot of businesses are hurting, and small businesses are huge in our city and in our county. While this isn’t giving them money upfront, it’s allowing them to defer payment, which I think would be very helpful. So I’m all for it.”

City Councilman Fred Neil was also quick to lend his support.

“Basically, this is extremely smart,” Councilman Neil said. “Sometimes, Dover is known as a tough place to do business. It’s not so. This certainly would be an indication that we do care about our small businesses, and I’m absolutely for it. This is a terrific program.”

City officials said that while the program would not fix all the economic damage done by the pandemic and the necessary safeguards, it will demonstrate the city’s commitment to supporting small local businesses and it may keep some valuable commercial customers viable until they can recover their business on the other side of this pandemic.

“Dover is committed to its small businesses and job preservation as much as it is committed to large firms,” Councilman Anderson said. “Together, we will remain ‘Dover Strong’ even in the toughest of times.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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