Small business owners in Rome hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic will be able to get grants of up to $5,000 through the city.

The city’s Community Development Services Committee approved the earmark on Wednesday for new U.S. Housing and Urban Development funds.

Rome has been notified that it will receive a $258,026 Community Development Block Grant — but the timing of when those funds will be available is still not clear.

The committee agreed to develop an application that will be scored on a point system, giving additional weight to the smallest of small businesses as gauged by number of employees.

Community Development Director Bekki Fox said the first draft of rules for the program stipulated that eligible local businesses should have no more than 20 employees. The initial plan also called for the funding to be a forgivable loan, provided that businesses account for all expenditures.

Committee Chairman Mark Cochran asked if the assistance could come in the form of a grant and not a loan. Fox said that was a possibility and would probably hasten the process somewhat.

Commissioner Sundai Stevenson said that sole proprietors, like many beauty salon operators, should have a good shot at receiving the help because they have been devastated by the state executive order that shut them down for the past month.

“We need to make it as easy, accessible and as understandable as we possibly can,” said Commissioner Randy Quick. “We don’t want any hang-ups that could delay the help.”

Following Wednesday’s meeting, Fox and the Community Development office will take a few days to finalize the rules for the program before putting the proposal out for an expedited five-day public comment period and virtual public hearing.

Once comments are taken and any changes made, the plan would go to the full Rome City Commission for authorization.

“I’m just like everybody else,” Fox said “I want to get this money out the door. But our hands are tied by HUD and regulations. I want to be ready to go when they say go.”

“I just wish it was like, tomorrow, not three or four weeks down the road,” said Assistant City Manager Patrick Eidson.

The committee decided that local owners of national franchises would also be eligible for the local grant so long as they meet all of the local requirements..

“I think we need to be very clear to whoever winds up getting this money from the grant program that they really need to do the record keeping,” Eidson said. He told commissioners the last thing the city wanted to do was discover that any of the funds had been used for an unauthorized purpose and be forced to ask a business owner to return some of the funds.

Downtown Development Director Amanda Carter said the application should include a checklist of all the documentation that business owners would have to provide to make it clear that all funds were used for eligible purposes, such as lease or mortgage payments, utility expenses and payrolls.

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