Burlingame officials blessed a package of programs worth an estimated nearly $1 million proposed to help suffering local businesses and residents recover from the hard times brought by COVID-19.

Launching a grant program targeting businesses, offering a gift card program to residents, paying merchant fees to business improvement districts and temporarily waiving downtown parking fees were among the initiatives considered by officials Monday, April 6.

The discussion, which yielded no formal decision from officials who favored further examination, arrived as City Manager Lisa Goldman detailed the extensive damage expected to be done by the pandemic to the city’s budget.

For the existing fiscal year, Goldman said officials anticipate to close with a deficit of nearly $10 million — a remarkable departure from the $1 million surplus anticipated before the virus took hold.

Goldman said the $18 million held in unassigned reserves will help officials fend off any desperate, immediate measures, but she did not downplay the magnitude of the financial hurdle faced by officials.

“All is not lost, but $10 million is quite a lot of money that we will not see this year,” said Goldman.

A majority of budget harm is done by the loss of hotel and sales tax revenue, two of the industries hit hardest by the stay-at-home order by health officials in the effort to stem the spread of coronavirus.

To that end, local tourism experts project hotel occupancy rates in the single digits — lows not seen since the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York. When the economy was thriving last year, occupancy rates neared 90% and hotel taxes generated almost $30 million for the city’s budget.

Goldman said officials are still crafting budget projections, and expect more details to be available next month. But the early economic impressions are dire, she said.

“This is a tough one, but it’s not a surprise to anyone,” she said.

To ease the tough times faced by local businesses, officials favored establishing a fund which would fuel a grant program available to small Burlingame companies needing financial assistance to stay afloat.

Specifics still need to be refined, but an initial proposal suggested offering grants worth between $5,000 and $15,000 to viable businesses which have also applied for other forms of financial assistance such as state and federal programs. In all, officials projected the program could cost as much as $500,000.

“We want some of our better-run businesses to survive and be there on the other side to provide jobs and provide us with services,” said Councilman Ricardo Ortiz.

Councilmembers agreed the money paid from the economic stability reserve would be directed to SAMCEDA, which would facilitate the city’s grant program in a fashion similar to the larger, regional initiative helping county businesses. Officials also considered operating a business loan program, but ultimately landed on deferring to the expertise of county officials to run a program specifically benefiting Burlingame businesses.

“Having a partner that can do this for us makes a lot of sense to me,” said Goldman, in making the case of the grant program over the loan initiative. “I think the rest won’t work very well. I think we will spend a lot of brain cells trying to figure it out, and at the end of the day, I’m not sure it will benefit the people who need the money now.”

Further intending to benefit businesses and residents, officials also favored launching a gift or charge card program which locals could spend when patronizing Burlingame businesses. Specifics of the initiative expected to cost as much as $250,000 are yet to be determined, as officials sought to assure that the cards available to qualified residents could only be redeemed in the city.

Councilman Michael Brownrigg, who sits with Councilwoman Donna Colson on the subcommittee tapped with crafting details of the various initiatives, framed the program as a “simple and elegant” solution which will benefit residents and businesses.

Some of the less substantial programs included a proposal for the city to pay one time the annual business improvement district fees for companies on Burlingame Avenue and Broadway. The fees typically finance aesthetic improvements and celebrations which Colson said will be essential to build community once the stay-at-home order is lifted.

Similarly, once the order is lifted, officials also proposed temporarily waiving parking meter fees in central shopping districts as a means of incentivizing shoppers to visit local businesses. Councilmembers generally favored the proposal, but feared lax enforcement could yield long stays in desirable spaces and also cost the city a substantial source of revenue.

For her part, Mayor Emily Beach expressed her support for the variety of initiatives while noting the additional refinement necessary to get them off the ground.

“The subcommittee has got their work cut out for them,” she said.

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