GUSTINE - City Council members have expressed an interest in extending assistance to Gustine businesses hit hard by the pandemic.

But whether doing so is possible - and what form assistance may take - remains to be seen.

One option which the council discussed at length during its Jan. 19 meeting was renewing a previous program in which municipal utility bills were forgiven for businesses closed due to the pandemic. More than two dozen businesses were assisted by that program.

But council members also expressed interest in exploring what additional options - if any - may be available to help those businesses as the pandemic persists and asked staff to return with a report on possible programs.

Restrictions on making gifts of public funds complicate the issue, city officials said, but some avenues of assistance may be available nonetheless.

“Right now, the only thing we can look at are utility payments,” City Manager Doug Dunford told Mattos Newspapers. “If we got some type of federal funding such as CARES Act, we can certainly look at doing something for the businesses that are impacted. If it comes from the CARES Act, and is not public funds per se, we could do that.”

Council member Rich Ford noted that Newman recently awarded a number of business grants.

“If we had an opportunity to do what Newman did.....that was something great for their businesses,” he stated.

Dunford said Gustine’s Highway 33 neighbor to the north was able to do so only because Stanislaus County passed along more than $100,000 in supplemental CARES Act funding to the city, which in turn used the money for business grants in the amounts of $5,000 and $2,500.

He said Gustine, by contrast, received $73,000 in CARES ACT funding last year - all of which had to have been spent on pandemic-related expenditures no later than mid-December.

A portion of that money was used to fund the previous utility bill relief program for closed businesses.

Dunford said the city used the federal funds for a variety of purposes, including the purchase of personal protective equipment and decontamination of areas thought to pose a potential exposure risk.

Council member Dennis Brazil asked if the city might be able to essentially claw back those funds and re-designate the CARES Act money for business assistance programs.

But, Dunford said, even if that were possible it would mean pulling money from other city accounts to cover the original CARES Act purchases.

Council members across the board expressed a desire to help local businesses if the city can find an avenue to do so.

Mayor Pat Nagy said he would favor a grant program, if one could be established.

If not, he told Mattos Newspapers, perhaps the city could look at some form of business loan program.

“We did have some money that we used to give relief to 26 businesses on their (city) utility bills for three or four months,” Nagy commented. “I know that helped them, but who knew that this was going to last as long as it has, and looks like it is going to continue to last.”

“We have to do something,” commented council member Jim Bonta. “We don’t want to lose these businesses. Once we lose them, they are gone.”

Council member Dennis Brazil told Mattos Newspapers that he considers utility bill assistance a starting point.

“I am willing to help these businesses that are closed with more than their utility bills,” he stated.

Mayor Pro Tem Derek Alexander said he, too, would like to see the city do more for its businesses impacted by the pandemic. He said, though, that the ability to do so may depend on the city receiving additional pandemic relief funds.

Mayor Nagy emphasized that the importance of helping businesses survive cannot be overstated.

“We can’t afford to lose any one of them. Every time we do lose one it makes us weaker as a whole,” he commented. “We have to do it in a responsible way. Our county didn’t give us the funds because they didn’t get the funds like Stanislaus County got.

“I think we are all on the same page,” Nagy concluded. “Now it is just a matter of what to do and how to do it.”