Murphy hears complaints from Bridgeport business owners on federal COVID-19 relief money

BRIDGEPORT — While the federal government has made millions of dollars available to help with recovery from the pandemic, local business owners complained to U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on Tuesday that they haven’t seen any of the money.

“I’m listening to all this talk about all this money being around but it didn’t trickle down to us,” complained Debbie Sims, of the East End NRZ Market and Café, during a meeting of small business owners with the senator at the Burroughs Community Center.

“I think the government forgot that us small businesses were in crisis,” Sims said. She explained that her business is on Stratford Avenue and during the pandemic it became a resource for that community.

“We applied for the grant because we wanted heaters outside because we had to continue the market in the cold and we are now in June and I still haven’t gotten my heaters yet. The process at the top has to change,” Sims said.

“We have to figure out that failure,” Murphy agreed. “We set this program up really fast and we weren’t able to build all the support structure we would like into the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) program.”

Murphy said a lot of the initial problems with the program comes from the fact that small business owners seeking money had to go to the bank to apply for the federal grants.

“Banks were giving them out, it was federal money but banks were giving them out, but early on banks were calling up their big clients and that was where the money was going,” he said.

Murphy said the legislation was changed to ensure the money went to minority and women-run businesses but then right-wing groups filed lawsuits claiming the process was discriminatory.

The American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law in March, provides $60 billion in small business relief, including a $25 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund, $7.25 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, and $15 billion for the Targeted Economic Injury Disaster Loan Advance program to help the hardest-hit small businesses.

Fred Gee Jr., of the city’s Small Minority Business Enterprise, told Murphy that the rules should be relaxed so that more small businesses can access funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for COVID-19 relief.

“I’ve become the bearer of bad news for really good business owners who have not been able to access the COVID relief dollars because they have not been able to meet the criteria set by HUD,” Gee said.

He said only 22 of the 155 business owners in the community seeking relief from HUD have qualified for the funds.

“We have to provide relief to business owners at a much quicker pace than we have done,” Gee said.

Catherine Marx, district director of the Small Business Administration, who attended the meeting conceded that many people who are running their own businesses are finding it difficult to fill out the applications for the relief funding.

“They (the applications) are not easy but we do need to have very secure applications with a lot of documentation because it is a taxpayer funded program so we have to do everything we can to make sure we mitigate waste, fraud and abuse,” she said.