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Vermont officials defend disbursement of pandemic cash

Published: Sep. 23, 2021 at 4:35 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont officials are defending their disbursement of pandemic relief funding following a state auditor’s report found there wasn’t enough oversight of the program.

In March of last year amidst coronavirus lockdowns, Burlington’s Church Street was among areas around the state that essentially became ghost towns, with no shoppers no revenue for businesses. Using a flood of federal cash, the state set up several grant programs to help businesses weather the storm. In the end, more than 2,200 businesses received $117-million, with some getting up to $300,000. the state-based grants off of revenue loss in march of 2020 compared to 2019.

“What they didn’t do is go back in weeks and months later and said, ‘Gosh, we don’t know how for a fact how this company did for the rest of the year.’ The fact is some companies turned it around,” said Vermont Auditor Doug Hoffer.

His office examined 57 businesses and found that two-thirds of them finished 2020 in better financial shape than 2019. Hoffer also says some businesses may have been able to reduce their expenses during the pandemic as well. The state grants were just one of the programs that kept businesses alive. Up to $10 billion was injected into the economy through paycheck protection loans, extended unemployment, and direct stimulus checks. “Those businesses received assistance from a variety of sources. If they were able to drop expenses and get this extra money, the question is ‘how did they turn out?’ Well as we found out from our sample, a lot of them had better years in 2020 than in 2019.” Hoffer said.

He says some were overpaid and could be a breach of federal rules, meaning the U.S. Treasury could claw back the cash and taxpayers could be on the hook.

“We followed the procedures and the methodology that we agreed upon,” said Vt. Commerce Secretary Lindsay Kurrle. She says federal officials have not reached out yet and that they did not overpay any businesses. Kurrle says Hoffer used a different methodology, net income. “We developed something in accordance with treasury guidelines and we feel like we’re on solid footing and that we stand behind the work that our agency did.”

Hoffer acknowledges that the business grant program was important but says more could have been done to better direct cash to those in need. “To help more businesses be profitable sounds like fun if you’re the owner of that business. But that money not being available to the businesses that were really hurting, that’s not an optimal outcome,” he said.

Whether businesses were overpaid or not, many we spoke with said the money came at just the right time and they may not be here without it.

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Was Vermont too generous with COVID relief money for businesses?

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