The Sitka Assembly has spent the last few months doling out $14 million in federal CARES Act funding to the community. While it’s set to distribute more of those funds in November, several recipients from the first round of business and nonprofit grants appealed to the assembly for more money. 

Acting as a judicial body at a special meeting on Tuesday (10-21-20) night, the assembly turned down all 10 appeals from businesses seeking more CARES Act funding.

The city originally budgeted $5 million dollars of the federal coronavirus relief money for business and nonprofit grants. Just over 600 applicants were approved in the first round in September, with an average award of around $4500 dollars (web: $4687).

The remaining funds will go toward a second wave of grants for businesses. City administrator John Leach said that the first wave had strict parameters and an objective review process: Applicants were awarded small amounts based on revenue from previous years.

“There were some hard numbers and some, I would say, some gates you had to hit to become eligible for certain sizes of grants,” he said.

Leach said that applicants who qualified for some money but appealed for more funding  will receive at least the amount they’re eligible for. Some applicants requested ‘special consideration for a higher award,’ citing extenuating circumstances they hoped would qualify them for more funding.

Leach said the finance department approved or denied the applications. “I was the first line appeal, then this is the second line appeal coming to the assembly, after the letters went out,” he said.

The ten appellants ranged from businesses in visitor and fishing industries to nonprofits and transportation. Most of them qualified for some funding initially. Each had three minutes to state their case before the assembly for more or, in one case, any funding. All of their circumstances were different- from a fishing business describing a slow start to its season, to nonprofits that had to cancel major fundraisers due to the coronavirus.

One appellant, local photographer Dan Evans who owns Northern Images, spelled out some of the challenges he’d experienced this year. 

“I usually make about 2000 calendars. And when it rolled into spring, I decided ‘Not a good idea’ because the stores weren’t buying. So I thought well I’ll just wait ’til fall,” he said. “Then these sales that come up at Christmas, that’s kind of my bread and butter time for that…that’s all gone so I didn’t do the calendar this year.”

“I’m lucky, I do more than one thing, so I’m okay,” he continued. “But that’s my loss in that business which is pretty substantial.”

Evans only qualified for one grant in the initial round, though he’d applied for relief for his two existing businesses. Businesses filing under the same tax ID number only qualified for one city CARES Act grant.

The business Takeena Adventures didn’t qualify for any funds because they had no gross revenue from 2018 or 2019. Owner Serena Wild said they were just getting their tour operation off the ground this spring, when people started cancelling or postponing due to the pandemic, including two government contracts they’d secured.

“Out of the bookings we had this year, half of our bookings that were supposed to come this summer rebooked for 2021 and did not come this year,” she said. “Our season ended up being, maybe, a quarter booked, when were on track to be fully booked by May.”

The assembly tried to figure out how to help them, but couldn’t find a workaround, and after some discussion with the finance department, city attorney Brian Hanson said the projected 2020 losses and cancelled bookings wouldn’t satisfy the requirements for the program. 

Ultimately the assembly deemed none of the appellants were eligible for a different level of funding than they were initially awarded. Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz said the process was painful. 

“That beat me up. That really wasn’t very fun at all and I know the applicants are probably walking away feeling the same way this evening. I think unfortunately we’re within some pretty strict federal guidelines on this, and I don’t know that we had much leeway tonight. I just do want to say that every one of you are essential to our community. Every applicant that came forward is essential,” he said. “I don’t want people to walk away from this process this evening feeling extremely discouraged.”

Eisenbeisz encouraged appellants to apply for the second round of CARES Act business and nonprofit funding. The requirements are more intensive for the second round, but the grant amounts are bigger. Those applications are due on October 30.