The end of the year deadline for spending federal CARES Act dollars is quickly closing in on the City of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County.
Even as the county expands its small business and nonprofit grant program and the city speedily signs new contracts, both are under pressure to spend all of the money before Dec. 30, and only a fraction so far has gone out the door.
Over the summer, the state allocated some of the federal funds directly to local governments to reimburse their COVID-related expenses, and allocated aid to small local businesses through a separate fund administered by local governments.
To date, the city has not asked for reimbursement for any of the $17.5 million it was allocated, says New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration spokesman Henry Valdez. Santa Fe County, meanwhile, has used just $2.4 million of its $10.5 million allocation.
At the beginning of September, the state also allocated nearly $3.8 million in grants for local businesses and nonprofits in Santa Fe city, county and the Town of Edgewood. So far only $119,952 has been awarded.
On Monday, the county and city expanded the eligibility requirements for the Small Business and Nonprofit Grant program in an effort to get money out the door faster.
The grant initially applied only to local businesses and nonprofits with under $2 million annual pre-COVID income and capped the amount a business could receive at $15,000 in reimbursements for COVID-related expenses. Eligible expenses can include anything from rent and mortgage payments during the shutdown to extra outdoor seating, advertising, cleaning supplies and more.
Only businesses that can prove their revenue dropped at least 25% this year due to the pandemic are eligible.
Now, the program has been expanded to include businesses with under $5 million in annual pre-COVID revenues and less than 100 employees, and each applicant can receive up to $25,000 in funds.
For Santa Fe Climbing Center, the $15,000 grant from the program means at least another month in business.
Owner Andre Wiltenburg says he had to close the gym for several months in the spring, and could only operate at 25% capacity throughout the summer. Now, it has closed again. He says by the end of the year, he expects a total revenue loss of between 25 and 45%.
Still, Wiltenburg says he made the decision early on to keep all of his 10 employees on board for as long as possible. The money, he says, will go almost entirely toward employee payroll and "help us to survive for another month or so…Every little bit helps, and this is a little more in the bucket."
Liz Camacho, Santa Fe Economic Development and Communications administrator, tells SFR the county and city petitioned the state to let them expand the program in order to move the money to those who need it, and have enlisted other organizations to help process applications as quickly as possible. The application opened officially on Oct. 9, and so far 45 applications have come in and been processed.
"We're doing everything within our capacity to get the money out the door," says Camacho.
Yet, with only $119,952 distributed and only a month to go, time is running out.
A similar story is taking place on the city side, though Finance Director Mary McCoy tells SFR in an email Tuesday that the city has made plans to spend all the money.
"We will seek reimbursement for the full $17.5 million that was awarded. We will be submitting our reimbursement request for COVID related expenditures in the spring and summer of 2020 to NMDFA next week," McCoy writes.
In an interview on Friday, McCoy rattled off the city's plans for categories of spending, but when asked to provide a document that listed the estimated costs, contract status and other details, she did not do so.
She says the city set aside $5 million to reimburse direct COVID expenses from the spring and summer such as additional PPE for first responders and cleaning and disinfectant supplies and signage for the city's COVID-safety campaign.
The remaining $12.5 million is earmarked for projects such as the new $2 million CONNECT fund to get money to people who can't pay their rent or who lost income but didn't receive stimulus checks or unemployment benefits earlier this year. The City Council has approved deals to spend about $2 million of the cash to jointly buy a hotel with a nonprofit to provide affordable housing and about $240,000 for security on the Plaza and homeless shelter.
The finance director says plans call for about $1 million for community health and safety projects, such as a mobile hygiene unit the city is already working to get out on the street; $2.4 million for homelessness and health support, including the hotel purchase; $500,000 to tourism and communications projects such as an app to help with community contact tracing. Another $3.6 million, she says, is earmarked for city operations such as setting up additional hand-washing stations in city buildings and paying for emergency sick leave.
McCoy says one of the main setbacks has been the city's own internal bureaucratic process and making sure that all of the proposed projects actually meet the eligibility criteria set by the feds for the CARES Act funds.
"It's been quite a process to learn the rules, to make sure we're following all the rules and to make sure that the dollars are being spent according to all of our policies and procedures," McCoy says.
A public records request filed by SFR with the city on Nov. 10 seeking documents that show spending, contracts or plans for the CARES money turned up just one item: signs purchased in June warning people to wear masks.
Valdez, at the Department of Finance and Administration, says not all municipalities have delayed as long as Santa Fe and he says "there's definitely no advantage" to waiting until the last minute.
He also says the delay in distributing small business grants "is definitely concerning because…this money could revert to the federal government and it could be disbursed to other states," says Valdez. "We don't want New Mexicans to miss out on critical aid during the pandemic."