A reader who has forgotten more about state politics than I could ever hope to know reached out to me with this commentary regarding Gov. Jim Justice handing out $10.6 million (to date) in small business grants (of $5,000 each) from a $150 million pot that he set aside from federal CARES Act money:
“It seems to me with all of the $5,000 awards, we are watching the buying of an election with taxpayer dollars. When you read the materials about this grant and how an entity qualifies, you have to show loss of income or additional costs caused by the pandemic. I don’t think anyone is really scrutinizing the applications and the awards are just coming to anyone who applies — just as you suspect. I think you asked a very valid question and deserve the respect of being offered at least something that is really responsive to the issue you raised.”
The reader is referring to the question I asked at the governor’s COVID-19 briefing Monday regarding the vetting process for the grants, since grants had gone to businesses that some might find questionable, including vape shops, tanning salons, a country club, a homeowners association at Snowshoe and a nudist resort. That provoked an outburst by Justice, who while evading the question, in attacking the questioner, intimated that he had tried to have me fired. More on that momentarily.)
Back to the reader’s comments: “I also think that for businesses really struggling because of the pandemic (restaurants, daycares, fitness centers, etc.), $5,000 is not likely to save them from the ultimate fate that many are going to face, if they have not already done so. They need far more than that to bridge the problem they have faced and continue to face. We can take an inventory just here in Charleston, where some restaurants remain closed, and all are operating at a mere fraction of the clientele they previously served and from which they derived far more revenue than the $5,000 will ever replace.”
Doing a quick Google search of how other states are distributing CARES Act funds to small businesses, there are a variety of methods, with many states offering low-interest loans (capping in some states into the millions of dollars), loan forgiveness programs and other options. States that offer grants appear to have larger denominations, with many providing $10,000 grants.
As the reader notes, it would make much more fiscal sense to have a system where small businesses that need far in excess of $5,000 to survive could have access to additional funding options and businesses that have been relatively unscathed by the pandemic would receive something less than $5,000, and in some cases, would not qualify for funding at all.
The reader concludes, “Obviously, if everyone gets the same amount, and there is no needs-based criteria, the whole scheme smacks of buying support for the election.”
It is peculiar that the state received the $1.25 billion of CARES Act money in April but to the consternation of many, it took the Justice administration until mid-July to activate a process for accepting small business grant applications.
That checks are finally going out in late August and September and not in the spring when they were most needed bolsters the reader’s theory that this is geared to the November election. (Not to mention the $50 million of CARES Act money that Justice committed to building “Medical Access Roads” in all 55 counties with the vast majority of projects nowhere close to health care facilities and not to mention the $2.7 million that Justice has taken out of the state civil contingency fund and distributed to fairs and festivals, symphony orchestras, and theater companies around the state.)
This is another reason there needs to be legislative oversight of the distribution of the $1.25 billion of CARES Act money, and by that, I mean the full Legislature, not some nebulous, anonymous cadre of legislative leaders that supposedly occasionally meets secretly to rubber-stamp their approval of Justice’s spending plans.
While there might not be a formal vetting process for the grants, having gone through hundreds of pages of grant awards, it does seem to me there is some selectivity.
There are dozens upon dozens of grants to bars and clubs, and rightfully so in that no business sector has been harder hit by the pandemic, but no grants to strip bars. Numerous tanning salons have received grants, but no tattoo parlors.
Numerous law, dental and medical offices have received grants, and while those professional offices certainly lost revenue early on in the pandemic, most have rebounded nicely with reopenings. (I know when I rescheduled a dental checkup that had to be canceled in early May, the earliest my dental office could squeeze me in is late October.)
Certainly, it is also reasonable to question whether the operators of Logan County Club, the Worthington Golf Club in Parkersburg or the Silver Creek Association, a homeowners’ group at Snowshoe resort, really need $5,000 small business grants to maintain their viability.
Justice seemed perturbed Monday when informed one of the grants went to Avalon Resort, a clothing-optional resort in Paw Paw. I’m certain most people would recognize it as a legitimate business enterprise and like all tourism and travel industries, one that undoubtedly has been hard-hit financially by the pandemic.
However, I also understand why Justice would be concerned that some constituents might consider it inappropriate to give taxpayer money to a nudist resort.
These are all policy questions that should be resolved by legislators, who are closer to their constituents’ wants and needs than a chief executive.
The Legislature should have been called in to determine how to best help small businesses get through the pandemic financially.
Whatever programs the Legislature would have formulated would have looked much different than Justice’s Oprah-like, “You get a check and you get a check and you get a check! Oh, and by the way, Election Day is Nov. 3.”
Or, as Justice told small business owners during his COVID-19 briefing on Friday, “Please keep signing up, and we’ll keep sending you the money, as soon as we can get you qualified.”
If indeed Justice were to set out to get me fired, I would be in some lofty company. In 1970, Gov. Arch Moore tried to do the same with my predecessor, Fanny Seiler, who at the time covered the statehouse for UPI. As with Justice, Moore had fabricated grounds for why he wanted Seiler’s termination, but the real reason was that he bristled at her aggressive reporting.
Before that could happen, Ned Chilton hired her away from the wire service and according to Gazette legend, told her, “Whatever you were doing, do double.”
In the biography, “Arch,” Brad Crouser discusses Moore’s contentious relationship with the statehouse reporters:
“As governor, his confrontational style rubbed some of the press corps the wrong way. Arch sometimes did not like the way they treated him, his programs, and the way they often mangled or distorted the message he wanted to convey. Like all successful politicians, he wanted to control the message ... He would often belittle reporters in press conferences, slashing them with his wit and sarcasm. But he seemed to forget that they controlled what was reported, and Moore was sometimes the loser in that battle (especially in his third term).”
Finally, as I continue my review of CARES Act small business grants, I note that when it comes to pet care grant recipients, company names can be, well, interesting. For instance, Abigail’s Hotel LLC is a doggy daycare in St. Albans while the Dixie Springs Resort and Spa in Princeton is a dog boarding, training and grooming facility.
Other $5,000 grant recipients include the popular country act The Davisson Brothers band and Stogie’s, a tobacco and beer store with locations in Huntington and Barboursville that features what we used to call head shop paraphernalia, including pipes, bongs and rolling paper.
DGLT Inc. of Southern Shores, North Carolina, also got a grant. While primarily an Outer Banks vacation rental business, it also owns the Great Clips hair salon in Martinsburg.
Meanwhile, two of the more interesting corporate names among grant recipients were Big Bing LLC and Big Pong LLC.
According to the secretary of state’s office, both companies are owned by Bing Chiang and both have the same principal address, on Ices Ferry Road in Morgantown, in an upscale Cheat Lake neighborhood. (As if there are downscale Cheat Lake neighborhoods ...)
Both businesses are coded as “food services and drinking places,” with Big Bing DBAs listed as Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt and Subway restaurant #15038. Big Pong lists no DBAs.
I’ll keep going through the grant awards as they roll in, so you don’t have to.