WATERTOWN — Local small businesses will be seeing much-needed financial relief from the effects of the COVID-19 shutdown in the coming weeks.
The finances are coming after the Watertown Common Council on Tuesday evening approved establishment of a small business assistance grant program.
The action by the council establishes an emergency small business grant program that Watertown Mayor Emily McFarland said will be handled, in part, by an outside firm she was able to find that will aid in the process at no cost.
"I was able to find a company to assist in processing the grant applications for free. They are experienced,” she said, adding a date for opening the applications will be set. They will be vetted and the city will write checks.
City officials said it appears that the program will begin June 1 and it will be conducted on a first-come, first-served basis.
According to the city, this is a 100% grant to approved businesses. McFarland said the money that will be used in the process is "defederalized grant money” and it will be in the amount of $63,600, in total.
City officials agreed the grant cash will be of great benefit to the city.
“It’s a pretty powerful thing,” one alderman said.
During public comment at the beginning of the meeting, Melissa Lampe, director of the Watertown Main Street Program, who was also speaking on behalf of the Watertown Area Chamber of Commerce, asked the council to support the resolution. She said it would provide “much-needed relief" to small businesses that are struggling.
Not only did the council offer aid to local small businesses Tuesday night, but to the elderly, who might have been having trouble getting large items of furniture to the city yard for disposal.
With the mayor admitting the resolution made her a bit nervous, the council unanimously approved curbside pickup of large items at a substantial charge to affected residents.
City officials said a list will be developed containing 10 items that will be accepted curbside and the cost will be double that of when a resident is able to drop their item off at the city facility.
There will be weekly routes established, so city crews are not driving randomly around.
McFarland said she asked the street department to look into this opportunity for street side pickup and that the bulk pickup causes overtime and workers compensation issues.
McFarland has heard complaints from senior citizen women, in particular, that they have no way to dispose of their bigger items, such as couches and chairs.
“They said, 'I will pay whatever I need to pay. I just need to get these items out of the house,’" McFarland said. "Other municipalities do not provide the service and others, that do, have doubled the cost, as a deterrent.”
Alderman Karen Wendt asked if there could be a senior discount put in place, with McFarland saying the initial rates don’t cover the city's costs, so going into community and collecting items would not cover the costs of workmen’s compensation claims that could arise.
The city acknowledged the curbside collection of large items is a "premium service" that takes substantial time and labor, and comes with a great risk of injury to city crew members.
“It makes me nervous,” McFarland said, "but it’s worth the effort to offer this to citizens. Those that need it, will take us up on it, but hopefully it will not be many.”
A list of items that will be accepted will be published on the city website. Related information may also be posted in the Watertown Daily Times, “But we have to make sure this is cost-effective,” McFarland said.
In other business, a public hearing was conducted on a proposed rezoning of property at 231 and 233 Air Park Drive.
Speaking at the hearing was Charlie Boysa, who said the current industrial zoning should be changed to residential.
Boysa, part of the property owner Audobon Park Outlets, LLC, said he never planned to build anything industrial on the properties when they were purchased 20 years ago and now that a tax incremental financing district that had been in place has expired, the Loeb family that had an interest in the property is in favor of the zoning change.
Boysa said in 2019, the city endorsed multifamily housing in that area and the zoning change should happen. Neighbors are also in favor of multifamily residential housing in that area.
"We are excited to get this project going by the end of summer,” he said.
Steve Boysa said it's a perfect opportunity to create more housing in the city.
“We enjoy building and we enjoy being around projects,” Steve Boysa said, "and we get to employ lots of people for a year, or year-and-a-half. It’s fun to see the construction and the guys working. We just want to build this project and add to the tax base.”
The Loeb family expressed support for the rezoning and said the Boysas have a good reputation for putting together nice, multifamily housing packages and this one should follow in that tradition.
The matter will go back to the plan commission for its recommendation.
In her COVID-19 update, which has become a mainstay of the common council meetings of 2020, McFarland said 523 cases have been investigated in Watertown, with 27 confirmed cases and five being probable. In 22 of 27 cases have recovered and 494 were deemed to not have been cases.
McFarland said, surprisingly to her, a majority of people who have contracted COVID-19 in Watertown are younger to middle age.
She said the city will continue to issue recommendations to people and businesses on how to proceed in the COVID-19 recovery and this will be done in conjunction with the police and fire departments, legal advisors and the health department. She said city staff members are being as responsive as they can be as businesses begin to re-open.
“At this point, the intention is to continue to issue recommendations, and we are making case-by-case decisions with event organizers as the summer approaches,” the mayor said.