Relief grants helping some Montanans, others still waiting

Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Since Gov. Steve Bullock created several grant programs to assist those impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, some businesses, individuals and nonprofits have received money while others wait.

In West Yellowstone, the 1872 Inn applied for $10,000 from the business stabilization grant program, which can be used to cover costs associated with the pandemic. The hotel recently received $10,000 and has allocated it to payroll, said owner Brenna Maurer.

The 1872 Inn typically opens for the summer on May 1, but this year was unable to open until June 1, when the mandatory 14-day quarantine for out-of-state visitors was lifted. The late opening coupled with numerous cancelations led to significant reductions in revenue and staff, Maurer said.

Moose Creek Cabins & Inn Inc. and Aspen Inc., both West Yellowstone accommodations associated with 1872 Inn, also received money from the state grant program.

Even with the grants, Maurer said she’s worried about the summer.

“At this point, we’re hoping people won’t be afraid to travel the further along we get in the summer because this money only gets us so far,” she said. “But the riots and COVID-19 have changed people’s mindsets.”

Montana received $1.25 billion from the federal coronavirus relief package to support the state’s response to the pandemic. Bullock initially set aside $50 million for the business stabilization grant program, but based on demand, he has increased that to $75 million, making it the state’s largest allocation to date of the federal money.

The high demand for funds has led to some delays. The online grant application has occasionally been slow to load and some businesses have applied but have yet to receive funding.

When the application portal opened at 8 a.m. on May 7, CGS Insurance in Bozeman applied, said sales manager Gregg Thomas. The company has since responded to all requests from the state for follow-up information but still hasn’t received a grant.

CGS Insurance’s business has slowed due to the pandemic, forcing the company to lay off its employees, Thomas said. The grant money would help the company cover payroll and loan repayments.

“The grant is paramount because COVID-19 was not in our business plan,” Thomas said. “I think the governor had an awesome idea in creating this program, but we’d appreciate if there was a tracker to show us how close our application is because we can’t be the only ones wondering about this money.”

The Montana Department of Commerce, which oversees the business stabilization grant program, has reallocated its staff to review applications in an effort to get money to businesses quickly, said director Tara Rice.

Over 8,000 businesses have applied, requesting a total of more than $60 million. About $10.6 million has been distributed.

The delays some businesses are experiencing could be a result of the need for back-and-forth communications with the Department of Commerce regarding their eligibility for the grants or their bank account information, Rice said.

“We diligently review every application that comes through the door,” she said, adding that, “The overwhelming experience from businesses is that the process has been smooth. … There are always particular cases where it’s a little different, and we’re working with the businesses that have hit a snag.”

Another significant portion of the allocated federal funds — $50 million — has gone to middle-income families for rent, security deposits, hazard insurance and mortgage payments. About 1,000 people have applied for the funds and the Department of Commerce has distributed about $83,000.

The new program aims “to fill the gap” between existing Department of Commerce housing programs, which largely target low-income families, Rice said.

So far, Bullock has set aside about $170 million of the federal $1.25 billion for Montana’s COVID-19 response. He has added programs slowly based on need, he said. Most recently, he announced two new initiatives on Thursday.

He designated an unspecified amount for reimbursing local governments for COVID-19 expenses, something city, town and county officials have been requesting. He also set aside $2 million to bolster in-state meat processing infrastructure.

Even with the two additions, some groups are still looking for support.

Danica Jamison, president and CEO of the Greater Gallatin United Way, said her organization, along with some local child care providers, have been seeking money directly through the federal government as well as through the state-administered programs with limited success.

Jamison was among several signers of a letter to Bullock asking that $50 million of the federal $1.25 billion be set aside for child care providers because they face unique challenges, such as providing emergency care in response to school closures while also having to limit capacity to comply with social distancing requirements.

Mayors and city commissioners across the state and the Montana Budget and Policy Center are also pushing for $50 million to be allocated to child care, Jamison said.

A Bullock spokesperson said in an email on Monday that the governor hasn’t yet made a decision on whether to provide $50 million to child care providers and pointed to a handful of federal and state programs that could provide assistance, including the new grants.

In a press conference on Thursday, Bullock said the programs created so far with the federal coronavirus relief money are based on recommendations from his recently appointed coronavirus relief task force, as well as from public commenters.

“As we strive toward short- and long-term economic recovery for our neighbors all throughout the state, we’ll continue to monitor the dollars currently going out the door, continue to make decisions on where the dollars should be going out in the future,” he said at the press conference.