Community Foundation Will Disclose Ventura County Businesses That Receive Grants
The Ventura County Community Foundation has agreed to disclose the names of businesses that have received tax-funded grants to help them weather the pandemic, freeing up close to $20 million in aid for thousands of additional businesses.
The Camarillo-based foundation will share the names after the initial group of 777 recipients are given the chance to drop out of the assistance program to avoid having their names disclosed to the county government and the public.
That privacy comes with a price. Businesses leave the program by returning their tax-funded, $5,000 grants, according to a contract amendment authorized Tuesday by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.
That provision was added to give individuals who may not have known their information would be publicly shared the opportunity to return the money and withdraw from the program, county Assistant Executive Officer Mike Pettit said.
Nearly 3,800 more businesses that have applied and are waiting for their awards will be given the option of withdrawing their applications if they don’t want to comply with the disclosure requirements.
The foundation has resisted disclosure in a dispute with the Ventura County government, which contracted with the foundation to run the program. The foundation argued the names of the initial 777 recipients were confidential while the county said they could not be because the grants are funded by federal taxpayers through the relief legislation known as the CARE Act.
It’s a dispute that has slowed the process of giving grants to the additional businesses, but appeared Tuesday to have been resolved with the board’s vote to OK the contract amendment.
Checks due next month
Checks are now due to be issued to substantially all of the remaining eligible applicants from the pool of 3,800 by Nov. 20. Checks for all eligible applicants will be issued by Dec. 15, according to a timetable in the amendment. Under normal conditions, the grants do not have to be repaid.
Along with the names of the businesses, the foundation will provide the identities of the owners and the addresses of the establishments to the county, the amendment says. The businesses’ names and addresses, excluding the identities of those that withdraw, will be provided to the media, according to language in the amendment.
Speaking at Tuesday’s board meeting, county Supervisor Linda Parks welcomed the news that the foundation had agreed to turn over the information following weeks of talks between the parties.
“We need to have transparency,” she said. “These are tax dollars. I’m glad to see in the last week that we did get that agreement.”
The board has OK’d spending more than $23.9 million on the assistance program for small businesses.
About $4 million has been awarded to the first wave of recipients in the program for businesses with annual gross revenues of $25,000 to $2 million. But the much larger share of close to $20 million remains.
Tuesday’s unanimous vote came two weeks after supervisors balked at a previous version of the contract amendment that did not contain a promise to reveal the names of the first round of recipients. It came a month after Parks and Supervisor Steve Bennett objected to sending the final $8 million approved by the board until the issue was resolved.
Notices going out
In a notice that was due to go out Wednesday, the foundation will inform the first group of 777 businesses they have four weeks to opt out of the program by returning the grant funds.
The board’s vote Tuesday authorized County Executive Officer Mike Powers to sign the amendment, which also required the signature of the foundation’s CEO, Vanessa Bechtel.
Bechtel said she expected to receive the county-approved amendment within a few days, which will allow the foundation to begin processing the additional grants. She confirmed that the county and the foundation have agreed on the terms.
Bechtel declined comment on whether the foundation had capitulated, but said she was glad the money could start going out to businesses during such a challenging time.
Powers expressed the same sentiment in remarks to the board on Tuesday.
“We are grateful we will be able to move forward today,” he said.
The application records of the roughly 3,800 businesses still waiting for the grants are the property of the county and they will be given two weeks to withdraw their applications if they don’t want their records shared with the government, the amendment says. Still in dispute is whether the county or the foundation controls the records from the initial round of 777 businesses that received grants.
Bechtel referred questions on why the foundation had relaxed its position to attorney Bill Choi, who could not be reached for comment.
Choi has said that the foundation objected to the disclosure of the names of the first wave of recipients because those businesses expected their names would be kept private.
Most are businesses that are owned by women and persons of color, he said in an email after the controversy arose.
“Many of them have expressed concerns that publicly disclosing their business as a recipient of the $5,000 small business grant may indicate to current and future customers that they are struggling, too small and perhaps not capable of handling larger or more complicated orders or jobs,” he wrote.
“Disclosure of the grant recipients, therefore (in particular where they were given an expectation of privacy), may hurt the very small businesses that the grants were intended to help.”
The CEO of the Greater Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce said she hoped that businesses would not be deterred from claiming grants because they don’t want to disclose the information on their businesses.
“Small businesses need this money,” CEO Danielle Borja said. “They are in this situation, most of them through no fault of their own, and getting these funds is going to be so critical.”