AUSTIN (KXAN) — City of Austin’s effort to pull together an additional, “vital” $15 million in city pandemic relief dollars for three industries took another step forward at Thursday’s city council meeting.
Council approved the second portion of city funding necessary to make the grants possible, however they have not yet come to an agreement on how the grants will work.
The Save Austin’s Vital Economic Sectors program (SAVES) aims to allocate $15 million in relief from the city with around $5 million going to three funds: one for childcare providers, one for legacy businesses and one for live music venues.
After hearing in September from childcare providers, restaurants and music venues in dire straits and at risk of closing permanently, city council asked city staff to quickly look for any additional funding that might be available to help these sectors.
City staff came up with this $15 million plan for SAVES, which council voted to approve Oct. 1. The funding for this relief comes entirely from the city—from delayed or postponed payments in other departments or from revenue the city has.
The council already approved at a prior meeting allocating $6 million towards this funding from the Human Capital Management System, saving this money by switching from a pre-payment to a pay-as-you-go model. But with council objections to other proposed areas of funding, city staff went back to the drawing board for more ideas to reach the $15 million total.
The city already distributed more than $37 million through COVID-19 relief programs, but economic setbacks as a result of the pandemic persist across the city.
The city is expected to end the year with $13 million more in sales tax revenue than they were anticipating, so city staff proposed this week that $8.5 million of those sales tax revenue dollars be used to pay for the rest of this SAVES program funding.
On Thursday, the council approved using this $8.5 million toward the SAVES program.
Questions on the best way to roll out the programs
However, Austin Mayor Steve Adler wasn’t content with the current guidelines for the grants to preserve Austin music venues and legacy businesses, calling for a postponement to come up with better guidelines in hopes of helping more businesses survive.
As of this article’s publishing, Austin City Council has not completed its discussion about these relief dollars yet.
Earlier this week, city staff presented council with a proposal for how these three grants would work, each with different requirements and grant allocation amounts.
Adler expressed concern that the guidelines staff proposed were too prescriptive, and other council members shared worries that all three grants were being carried out through a lottery system.
However Adler said Thursday he is recommending postponing a vote on the guidelines for the legacy business and music venue grants.
“The purpose of both items is to try to save and provide long-term sustainability,” Adler posted on the council message board Thursday.
“The intent is more than just to help businesses survive the next several months,” the mayor wrote. “To effect this, the program needs to get real expertise (legal and accounting) to the eligible applicants.”
Adler said city staff is “leery” of being put in the position of deciding who ultimately will be selected for these funding dollars. He wrote an economic development corporation would be a more “proper” party to make those decisions.
Some municipalities, such as Temple and San Antonio, have economic development corporations, but Austin does not.
With time for many venues and businesses running out to recoup their lost funds, Adler suggested the council rework the wording for these resolutions so city staff could make sure no businesses “die” while waiting for new program guidelines or funding. Under Adler’s vision, these businesses would have case management that would work with them as they applied.
On the message board, Adler proposed eligible applicants for these programs could receive a certain amount of legal or accounting assistance to help them survive in the long term and apply for the grant. He said this would give city staff the ability to give emergency assistance to an otherwise eligible applicant who might not survive long enough to participate in the process.
“We cannot help everyone who is hurting and needs assistance,” Adler wrote on the message board. “But we can help some and provide help that would ensure long-term sustainability.”
There was no mention at Thursday’s meeting so far of postponing the guidelines for the childcare grant, so those grant guidelines could be approved without any changes.
Its unclear how quickly these programs could get funds in the hands of businesses in these vital sectors. Once the guidelines are approved, city staff will need to approve a third-party to administer these grants.