LEWISTON — An emergency business loan program was introduced and implemented by city officials Tuesday to provide local restaurants with support as businesses attempt to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The $4,000 loans, which would charge no interest, are meant to support businesses working to reopen — under social-distancing guidelines — that might not qualify for other financial assistance, such as federal Community Development Block Grants.

The city will make $150,000 available to the program, according to officials.

This week, several restaurants have begun to reopen to the public with outdoor dining, following the phased reopening plan outlined by Gov. Janet Mills.

Members of the city staff have been working quickly to approve outdoor seating plans and licensing to allow restaurants to reopen quickly, but, according to City Administrator Ed Barrett, city employees have noticed gaps in support programs available to businesses.

He said some businesses do not qualify for a small loan program that the city rolled out with CARES Act CDBG funds, and are “looking for something simple,” with very small loans.

Deputy City Administrator Denis D’Auteuil said city employees have been working on the loan program for days, and hope it is “more flexible and will hopefully meet more needs” for businesses.

Since the item was not on Tuesday’s meeting agenda, councilors voted to suspend the rules to implement the program. The vote was unanimous.

“Time is of the essence for a lot of businesses here locally,” Councilor Stephanie Gelinas said.

“Why are we procrastinating? added Councilor Lee Clement. “Let’s suspend the rules and vote on this tonight,.”

While the small loans could potentially be awarded to 37 businesses, Gelinas questioned whether the loans could be for larger amounts, based on local demand for the program.

The city of Auburn rolled out a similar small loan program in April. As of Monday, some of the funds for that program were still available, according to officials.

Applications for a first installment of funding are due by July 1.

The City Council also voted Tuesday on two items intended to assist businesses and multiunit property owners looking at rising expenses during the coronavirus pandemic.

The city amended its fee requirement for multiunit property owners who participate in the city’s solid waste program, which will delay payments for landlords in response to concerns over “difficulty in collecting rents,” according to officials.

Another item will waive a requirement that a business must be current on all fees owed the city to obtain a business license.

 

SCHOOL BUDGET

City officials also held a public hearing Tuesday on next year’s proposed $88.6 million school budget.

The budget represents a 2.9% increase from this year, but is offset by an increase in state subsidy and by funding carried forward from this year’s budget.

Due to financial concerns amid the virus pandemic, municipal and school officials have planned budgets that will reflect no increase to the tax rate.

During a presentation to the council Tuesday, Superintendent Todd Finn said he is proud of the collaboration that took place between city and school officials to craft the budget during an unprecedented public health crisis.

“As a first-year superintendent, the guidance I received, it made us better,” Finn said. “I feel like we’ve been one team to get ourselves where we are now. We are amidst a resurgence in Lewiston, despite the challenges.”

Mayor Mark Cayer said this year’s budget process, his eighth as an elected official, “just felt different.”

“There has always been cooperation,” he said, “but this year it truly felt like everyone was at the table.”

The council is scheduled to adopt the school budget June 16, with the validation referendum taking place during the July 14 election.


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