Government help programs have changed America in many ways for the better, and no doubt in some ways for the worse. But rarely do they come off the assembly line without a few non-working parts that need to be fixed.
Such may be the case with Mayor Jon Mitchell’s “expanded facade” program, announced to much fanfare in the last days of March. It was the first of New Bedford’s pandemic relief money programs to make its way to the new-car showroom.
Surrounded by city suits, and with city councilors Ian Abreu and Maria Giesta nodding approval, the mayor on March 29 announced an ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding program that would give merchants in New Bedford’s commercial neighborhoods up to $40,000 in federal government money to rehab their storefronts. All they had to do was pay for one-quarter of the cost in matching funds.
Sounded great, and it has been somewhat great, but the initial applicants certainly seem skewed to more established, financially stable businesses rather than the seat-of-the-pants, entry-level shops it was meant most to help in the city’s lowest-income Census tracts.
City Councilor Linda Morad, who always has an eye for what’s wrong in a government program, quickly identified the shortcomings in the facade plan and took her concerns to the City Council floor a little over a week ago.
Morad announced at the April 28 council meeting that city merchants have told her that the 25% match to get the government money was too expensive for many of them. And she wondered out loud why, with all the federal ARPA money pouring into the city, Mayor Mitchell did not just design a program that simply pays for the storefront upgrades. Or at the very least, calls for a more affordable 5% or 10% match that does not further bankrupt shop owners who are just coming out of a two-year pandemic.
“I’m not sure who came up with that number,” she said. “I think it needs to be reconsidered.”
Morad said she had put a call in to Pat Sullivan, the city’s director of Housing and Community Development, asking how many applications the city has received, and where the applications came from.
“If we’re looking to help people, we don’t need to be taking money out of their pocket,” she said.
Morad’s concerns at first glance seem reasonable. But what Morad didn’t say is that she had not called her fellow elected official who could actually do something about her concerns. That would be the mayor.
The problem with Morad’s speeches on the council floor is that so many of them seem to be just grandstanding. The mayor tells me that the good councilor-at-large has not returned his phone calls for well over a year and did not attend any of his ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) meetings to provide input to his office on how the federal pandemic relief money should be designed or spent.
Mitchell did praise Council President Abreu and Ward 2 Councilor Giesta, who he said brought similar concerns about the 25% admission price to him, and he said he assured them he would work with them on those concerns and is open to expanding eligibility. The problem is that the councilors warned him right after the program was announced, but he has not yet moved on it.
Abreu and Giesta said nothing on the council floor about the mayor’s plans after Morad skewered Mitchell. Two other councilors, however, quickly got on Morad’s bandwagon, which must have seemed sturdily built enough to either throw a grenade from, or at least make a statement before the cameras.
Ward 6 Councilor Ryan Pereira, who has very quickly proved himself quite a competent councilor, noted that a lot of the shop owners he represents on lower County Street are first-generation Portuguese and Latinos and can’t afford a 25% share for an upgrade of their storefronts.
He questioned the 25% matching requirement, which to be fair, is done all the time with these kinds of public/private sector programs. Nevertheless, in a city like New Bedford, 25% of tens of thousands of dollars is a disqualifier right off the bat of many of those who would benefit from the program.
And then Pereira got to the nub of the problem with a lot of these public/private plans that come out of City Hall. “I hope with these ARPA funds we’re flexible,” he said. “I think that’s what the spirit of these funds are about.”
After Morad’s launch, Ward 3 Councilor Hugh Dunn couldn’t resist swinging for the fences with the issue, trying to put the mayor in a box where there was no political air.
“This is just so stupid,” he said. “Nobody’s going to go for it. And if this is the tone that the rest of the (ARPA) programs the administration rolls out, they need to stop and reconsider everything.”
You were better off in your initial comments, Councilor Dunn, when you argued that the shop owners already have “skin in the game” because they are taxpayers, and you correctly noted that asking for a pound of flesh from already hard-pressed businesses is missing the point of the government’s assistance.
“This is a grant program to help businesses that have often been shut down for the last few years, making no money, trying to keep their employees with some salaries,” Dunn said.
But Dunn’s suspicion of the mayor’s entire ARPA funding scheme is a leap, especially because, like Morad, he had not reached out to Mitchell about them. Perhaps Dunn and the mayor — especially since the police investigations of the councilor’s late-night car crashes — aren’t on the best of terms. But Dunn is a smart councilor and needs to start communicating with the chief executive in the interests of the city.
Dunn would have been absolutely right when he said that if no one is applying for the facade enhancement program with the 25% match, then the match should be suspended immediately. The problem is that he is not right. I called Pat Sullivan’s office to ask for the list, but Sullivan was pushed aside by the mayor’s office. (Not surprising given that municipal government in New Bedford increasingly must be filtered through the politics of what Jon Mitchell is trying to accomplish before any responses are given.)
The mayor’s press officer, Mike Lawrence, did provide me with the list of applicants and it turns out that so far some 11 different entities have applied for the government money, the majority of them willing to do the one-quarter match for the full maximum $40,000 available. If the majority of them get the money, that would be almost one third of the available $1.5 million for the program.
The mayor has his rationales for asking for the 25% share from the businesses. He has said from the beginning that he wants the pandemic money to go further by granting it to entities that increase, at least to some extent, the government funding. And he believes that if people put some of their own money up, they will be more accountable for how the money is spent.
That makes sense for a big outfit like the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center or the Whaling Musuem that have the ability to do fundraising. That is not the case, however, for many of the mom-and-pop businesses that line Acushnet Avenue, Rivet Street and lower County.
Mitchell says it’s difficult to determine who truly deserves the assistance and who doesn’t. He asked whether the city should give no-strings attached money to a well-to-do, out-of-town landlord who owns a run-down commercial establishment where the business owner is struggling.
My answer to that would be yes, help the struggling storefront owner, and bite the bullet for the slumlord whose property you’ve improved. There are other ways to chase landlords who are determined to exploit the city’s property market.
Mitchell emphasized that he’s open to reducing the cost, or even eliminating the cost, for some businesses, but he seemed somewhat grudging. “For businesses that truly have to stretch, yeah, I think we should find a way to put it within reach,” he said.
Based on my own travels around the eligible neighborhoods, I think there are plenty of those businesses.
The mayor stressed that the program is only a month old. That’s true. But as I said, a lot of the money could be soon committed.
A look at the list of businesses that have applied so far shows that many of them are very stable entities, six of them in or near the downtown. Two others are in the North End and two in the South End. One applicant was eliminated for not being located in a low-income Census tract.
The program needs to be tweaked to bring more folks in.
Let’s find a way to make this venture work for the folks whose businesses are most likely to benefit, but who are most intimidated by the city bureaucracy or simply unable to take out loans.
Let’s find a way to make it work better, Mr. Mayor.
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you to our sponsors
Founding benefactors: Joan and Irwin Jacobs fund of the Jewish Community Foundation, Mary and Jim Ottaway