Bill focuses on struggling small businesses

CHARLESTON- As the Charleston area continues to recover from the water emergency, members of the House of Delegates are looking into help that can be provided to small businesses impacted by an emergency situation.

A bill creating the West Virginia Small Business Emergency Act, House Bill 4175, was introduced in the House of Delegates Wednesday. The bill would provide immediate financial assistance in an emergency.

The legislation allows the governor to provide immediate emergency financial assistance – such as a grant or a no-interest loan – to small businesses in the areas under a State of Emergency.

Delegate John Ellem, R-Wood, one of the co-sponsors, said the bill was a direct result of the chemical spill into the Elk River last week that cut off water service to more than 300,000 people in the Charleston area.

As a result, businesses throughout the area have been closed for almost a week as water service is starting to return to areas, but not all yet.

“The bill would provide no interest to low interest loans to businesses affected by an emergency,” Ellem said.

There are businesses that cannot afford to remain closed for a long period of time, he said.

The bill provides the governor with emergency powers to make those loans available if the Legislature is unable to take immediate action, Ellem said.

“This is to help those small businesses that may not have the (financial) depths other businesses might have,” he said.

The bill was referred to the House Small Business, Entrepreneurship & Economic Development Committee, which took up the legislation during its first meeting Wednesday.

“We have witnessed first-hand how damaging an emergency such as this water crisis can be to small businesses, many of which remain closed six days into this State of Emergency, ” said Delegate Doug Skaff, chairman of the House Small Business, Entrepreneurship & Economic Development Committee. “We want to create a mechanism that allows the state to offer immediate financial help to small businesses, so owners can take care of looming expenses despite being forced to close for a period of time.”

Delegate Bob Ashley, R-Roane, who serves on the committee, said businesses are continuing to struggle trying to get back on their feet.

“There are a lot of businesses that are still shut down,” he said. “(By today) it will have been a week.

Even under normal circumstances, new businesses struggle and people who work hard daily struggle, Ashley said. When an emergency strikes, it can be devastating for many, he said.

The bill being worked on would give the governor emergency rule-making authority to make certain resources available, in many cases in a short period of time, to these businesses in the forms of grants or loans.

“We don’t want to overreact, but we do want to react,” Ashley said.

Ellem said provisions were set up in the bill that if a business receives funds from a lawsuit that originated with the emergency the loan program would be repaid first.

The bill passed out of the House Small Business, Entrepreneurship & Economic Development Committee and went to the House Finance Committee.