City weighs more options to help those struggling

By Mike Genet

Independence Mayor Eileen Weir had hoped to gather the City Council for a roundtable discussion earlier this week to develop a more comprehensive approach to helping citizens and businesses amid the ongoing – and worsening – pandemic.

The meeting ultimately got shelved. But Weir said yesterday’s announced changes around the city, which include waiving late fees for utility bill payments and suspending commercial shutoffs for nonpayment, were a “result of the intention of the meeting.”

The city months ago partnered with Community Services League to administer $2.1 million in utility ratepayer assistance with CARES Act funds, and the council also voted to lessen 2021 health permit fees for restaurants and hotels, but other attempts have been piecemeal.  

For example, a proposed utility ratepayer rebate of some sort had been shelved in October until a cash flow analysis that outside consultants recently completed, and until the CARES Act funds had been expended. Council members Mike Huff and Mike Steinmeyer, who have championed that idea, also proposed a resolution a couple weeks ago to suspend landlord business licenses concurrent with the federal eviction moratorium, which currently ends Dec. 31.

It did not gain majority approval, but Weir said she would be open to bringing it back.

“I’m not against that idea, but I think that bears a bit more discussion,” Weir said after the vote. “I do feel we need to sit down as a council and talk about these things rather than doing these one-offs that we’ve been doing every week.

“I’m willing to look at all those things,” she reiterated, this week, “but as a package and not as one-offs.”

The landlord resolution only covered business licenses that still would come due before the end of 2020 – possibly extending to next year if the federal government extended the eviction ban. 

Depending on income from rentals, that license starts $50 and goes up in small increments. City Manager Zach Walker estimated that comes to about $7,500 out of about $190,000 in annual revenue.

Huff, himself a landlord, said later that landlords are not eligible for federal aid to cover tenant nonpayments, and insurance also doesn’t cover that loss.

“I’ve not had any issues; all of mine have paid rent, but I know there are some (with this problem),” Huff said.

Huff said he pays his business license in the summer, so that potential move wouldn’t financially benefit him – and he added he would pay the license fee anyways.

“I’m just trying to help some through the rough months,” he said. “There’s some due every month, but (December) is one the biggest.”

An additional aid measure is on Monday’s City Council agenda: $184,500 in Community Development Block Grant funds that CSL will administer for rental housing assistance.

Weir said the funds are the extra CDBG money that Congressman Emanuel Cleaver procured for the city back in the spring. Independence had planned to use it for small business lending, but Weir said the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD, which distributes CDBG funds annually) didn’t approve the plan. 

“We’re reassigning that money for housing assistance, because it fits,” Weir said, adding that Cleaver’s office has indicated more CDBG funds could be coming in the near future.

The city had hoped for a portion of Jackson County’s final CARES funds allocation Monday, but the County Legislature voted for much of that to go toward salaries for first responders and emergency responders, after the federal government recently changed rules to allow it.

Echoing a line she’s used often during the pandemic, Weir said, “We’ll chase every dollar that we can.”