Loans to Nassau businesses discussed by BOCC


County commissioners discussed the financial impact the coronavirus crisis is having on Nassau County residents at their Wednesday meeting. The meeting was again held remotely through conferencing software due to the social distancing guidelines resulting from the pandemic.

Difficulties facing the county’s small business owners were front and center, along with efforts by the Nassau County Chamber of Commerce to provide financial relief so those businesses don’t end up closing.

BOCC Chairman Danny Leeper said Chamber President Regina Duncan sent a notice to local business owners “saying the BOCC has denied funding for small businesses.” Leeper said that message is “unacceptable.”

The notice to which Leeper referred was part of an update on COVID-19 resources distributed by the Chamber. It says, in part, “With the most pressing needs covered, the Chamber of Commerce recognizes the financial assistance needs of our businesses.

“The City of Jacksonville implemented a local loan and grant program for small businesses. Your Chamber of Commerce worked with the same lender (VyStar Credit Union), replicated the program and asked the County to allocate funding.

“Unfortunately, our first request was denied, but we wanted you to know we continue to work for you! If a program like this would help you, please contact your Nassau County Commissioners.”

Duncan confirmed to the News-Leader on Thursday morning that the information she sent to members mentions a financial assistance program being offered to businesses in Jacksonville and asks them to contact the BOCC if they’re interested in seeing a similar program in Nassau County.

Wanting to be part of the discussion at Wednesday night’s BOCC meeting, Duncan says she followed instructions County Manager and Attorney Mike Mullin provided at the beginning of the meeting but was never contacted to join the meeting.

Mullin said at the meeting that the Chamber had given him a proposal saying there are 3,342 local businesses, of which 2,687 qualify for loans under requirements identified by the Chamber: 

• Open for at least a year and can provide its most recent year’s tax returns;

• Must have between two and 50 employees; and

• Cannot fall into a category excluded by the state-funded Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan program, which was closed this week after running out of money, according to the Miami Herald.

In addition, the business owner must provide a personal guarantee for the loan.

Mullin said the Chamber estimated 1,074, or 40%, of the 2,687 eligible businesses in the county would participate in VyStar’s program, which is currently providing loans with a 5.99% interest rate and a $250 processing fee in Jacksonville.

The Chamber provided the county two options: Under the first, the county would provide $2,500 per business toward those loans at a total cost of $4,561,815. The second option reduced the amount the county would provide and have a total cost of $2,844,489.

Mullin said VyStar is prepared to make 200 loans to small businesses in Nassau County, whether or not the BOCC agreed to provide financial support.

Duncan said Thursday the conversation regarding financial assistance for small businesses that she had with Mullin prior to Wednesday’s BOCC meeting was misrepresented to the commissioners. She said she never submitted a proposal to the
county and only talked about what Jacksonville was doing.

“We submitted some draft documents of exactly what Jacksonville was doing, and we were stopped at the (county’s) staff level where they said there was no funding for such a program,” Duncan said. “It was a grant program. We were told there was no money for this, an identical program of what Jacksonville was doing.”

Duncan said the numbers she submitted to the county were at the request of Mullin.

“I put numbers together that Mr. Mullin asked me to put together,” she said. “Those numbers are irrelevant. If the county wanted to help with some grants, they could have designated any amount of money. That was just a start to begin the conversation. I was just estimating. That is based on nothing but an estimate. I don’t know what our volume would be. Had I been allowed to have input, I would have been able to explain that.” 

At the meeting, Mullin said the county, or any governmental agency, cannot act as a financial institution due to legal prohibitions in doing so.

Leeper expressed reservations about participating in the suggested programs, saying the Chamber was “hanging its hat” on VyStar when other banks could possibly be included.

Duncan told the News-Leader the reason she included VyStar when she talked to Mullin was that VyStar had already put the loan program in place in Jacksonville and was able to process loans within three days. She said she thought that program would be “turnkey” and save time over starting a new program “from scratch.”

In the end, commissioners said they do want to help local businesses but want more information from the Chamber before committing to a program.

“We have more questions than answers at the moment,” Leeper said. “Our first, primary goal is to meet the needs of our citizens, that’s our primary goal. We are obligated to do that. That’s what our priorities need to be at this moment.”

“All five commissioners would like to do something for the business community,” Commissioner Aaron Bell said. “However, I think we need to maybe go back to the Chamber and get a little bit more information and start answering these questions, especially with all the banks and what they’re doing. I’m with Commissioner Leeper, there’s more questions than answers.”

Duncan said she does not want to be “combative” with the county.

“I still consider them a partner. We have to be partners,” she said, adding the Chamber is working to find other ways to help business and wants to work with the BOCC.

Megan Diehl, director of the county’s Office of Management & Budget, gave the board a “very, very rough estimate” of how the county’s tax revenue will be affected by the coronavirus.

The numbers she presented, Diehl said, are based on a percentage of what is probable in relation to what the county is hearing from the tourism industry and activity for Florida Government Finance Officers Association. She said she looked across the taxing fund streams that come into the county’s coffers – a one-cent sales tax, a half-cent sales tax, a fuel tax — of which there are several types, state-shared revenues, and communication services tax.

“Between (the sales taxes and the fuel tax), if we collect only 70% of the revenue that we budgeted for the year, we are at about a $5 million shortfall across those three funds,” Diehl said. “If we collect only 50% of what we budgeted for the year in just those three specific revenues, we are at about $8 million to $8.5 million of shortfall.

“In this year, it would be a nonrecurring shortfall, but we don’t know how that’s going to apply to the future budgeting year. We don’t know if that’s going to be a recurring reduction.”

Diehl said staff has been identifying savings, such as salary savings and deferring projects, “so that we don’t have to make any draconian measures, hopefully, to address this expected shortfall.”

Mullin gave a breakdown of the county’s reserve fund accounts. He said there is $8 million in the emergency/disaster fund, $4.6 in the capital projects reserve fund, and $10.2 million in the minimal fund balance reserve.

Mullin said money the county has thus far contributed to nonprofits to help feed low-income and elderly residents during the coronavirus crisis totals $100,000. That money has come out of the emergency reserve fund.

Nassau County Department of Health Director Dr. Eugenia Ngo-Seidel spoke briefly during the meeting, answering questions regarding the county’s status.

Ngo-Seidel said there are three levels of community transmission as defined by the CDC. The first is minimal, second is minimal to moderate, and third is substantial.

“According to CDC definition, we would probably be in the middle section,” she explained. “We have had cases where we do not identify a traveler contact exposure so we would not be in the minimal. Likewise, we would not be in substantial as that is defined as having large-scale community transmission with health care staffing significantly impacted, which we have not had, and multiple cases within communal settings, so we would be at that minimal to moderate level.”