More than 50 mayors and town managers from across the state sent a letter to leaders in the state Legislature on Thursday, imploring them to quickly act on state financial assistance to help struggling small businesses weather the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The letter was sent on Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s letterhead, with Walsh and the top executives of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Massachusetts Municipal Association as the lead signatories. They were joined by a cross section of municipal leaders from across the state, from Acton and Agawam, to Winthrop and Worcester.
This week, many mayors in the Boston area enacted tighter restrictions on businesses than the statewide rules imposed by the Baker administration, and yet many are worried those limits might not go far enough. They have not yet banned indoor dining, for example, but there is widespread concern that they might need to do so if the COVID-19 numbers don’t subside.
“My goal is to get through this without having to shut down [again],” Walsh said in an interview, referring to a revisiting of the blanket closures imposed on restaurants and retailers back in the spring. “If we have a second shutdown, and there’s no relief for them, we’re going to have far more devastation.”
Several mayors said they realize Congress is inching closer to a massive relief package that would offer far more money than the state government can provide, including a reopening of the federal Paycheck Protection Program for forgivable loans to small businesses to help them meet payroll costs. But the state needs to help, too, the mayors said, because of the urgent need.
“We have to act collectively in Massachusetts, and do our part,” said Yvonne Spicer, Framingham’s mayor. “If Congress comes through, great. That makes it a little better. [But] we can’t wait until that happens.”
The mayors’ letter was sent to House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Karen Spilka, and the two chairs of the budget-writing committees for the House and Senate, Representative Aaron Michlewitz and Senator Michael Rodrigues.
The letter focuses on three forms of relief. There’s an economic development bond bill, which contains at least $75 million in small-business assistance, including a proposal to give grants to struggling restaurants. Two versions of that bill have been the subject of conference-committee negotiations between the House and Senate since the summer. Then there’s a supplemental budget proposal that Governor Charlie Baker filed last week, one that includes $49 million in small-business relief, after the Legislature only approved half of a request from Baker for small-business assistance in the state budget for this fiscal year.
“It’s not the savior piece of legislation,” Walsh said. “But it’s [tens of millions] we can get out on the streets.”
The mayors’ letter also makes an ambiguous third request of legislators: “to review creative funding mechanisms that come before you” to help small businesses, especially restaurants. Thousands of restaurants in the state have not reopened since the pandemic hit in March, and hundreds more are shutting down for the winter; many will not emerge from this period of “hibernation.”
The letter doesn’t spell it out, but many mayors have been discussing the idea of adding 2 percentage points to state and local meals taxes, and then issuing state bonds backed by that new revenue stream, to create a massive new pot of money for restaurant aid. This idea remains in conceptual mode, and with less than three weeks left in the two-year legislative session, there’s no indication that Baker or the Legislature are about to take it up.
Some state aid is on its way. The Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp. is processing more than 10,000 applicants for $50.8 million in small-business grants; only 9 percent of the applicants are expected to receive money, though, due to the overwhelming demand. The state budget for this fiscal year that Baker signed last week also includes nearly $50 million for small-business relief, including an extra $17.5 million for the oversubscribed Mass. Growth Capital program.
The mayors say these allocations simply aren’t enough.
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll looks around her city and worries about the survival of many mom-and-pops, the lifeblood of Salem’s business district. Many owners poured their life savings into their businesses, only to watch it all disappear after the pandemic hit.
“The places that were so vibrant in early March are hanging on by their fingernails,” Driscoll said. “Getting [even] small amounts now will help some of these owners. ... This economic development bill passing will give some of these businesses a real life preserver.”