Philly lawmakers: PA should tap COVID relief funds to help flooded businesses

The GOP-controlled legislature declined to comment on the request from Democrats.

A car is swamped at Park Towne Place apartments off 22nd Street near the Vine Street Expressway. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A car is swamped at Park Towne Place apartments off 22nd Street near the Vine Street Expressway. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Emma Lee/WHYY

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Manayunk small business owners stuck together through the pandemic. But just as less-restricted summer was breathing life back into the neighborhood commercial corridor, rains from the remnants of Hurricane Ida rushed in.

Tim Spinner of Taqueria Amor saw his basement flood with about six feet of water at the height of flooding on Wednesday.

“This stinks because just as we’re kind of getting our feet up under us, you know, this is devastating,” he said.

Spinner will have to replace his HVAC system and isn’t sure yet how much insurance will cover — and he isn’t the only business owner in the city in that position.

Now, Democratic lawmakers in Philadelphia are calling on the state legislature to tap into a multi-billion pot of coronavirus relief funds to help those small businesses recover.

State Sen. Sharif Street and a host of other state senators, state representatives and city councilmembers gathered Friday outside City Hall with a call to action. Pennsylvania has about $7 billion in its coffers from federal coronavirus aid — $5 billion that has been earmarked for future budgets and $2 billion to go into the state’s rainy day fund.

These federal relief dollars are typically restricted for pandemic-related issues, but some cities and states have allocated funds for other purposes. Any such consideration in Pennsylvania would require approval from the Republican-controlled legislature.

“This is a disaster that hit people regardless of whether you were a Democrat or Republican, whether you’re in an urban or rural area or suburban area,” said state Sen. Sharif Street, whose district includes Manayunk and parts of the Northwest.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) declined to comment at this time.

What is clear: federal aid for flood victims is off the table for now. Sudden, intense storms like these wreak havoc on residents and business owners, but they “rarely meet the thresholds needed for federal disaster aid,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement.

Wolf also noted the state’s emergency agencies won’t be able to distribute funds via its Individual Assistance or Public Assistance initiatives until President Joe Biden declares a federal disaster for the state.

The Democratic governor appealed to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to lower aid release requirements after the storm. In the meantime, Wolf’s office signed a disaster emergency proclamation this week that will allow state agencies to respond more quickly and easily to municipal requests for assistance and resources.

But Street says there’s more the state could do — if his colleagues across the aisle would endorse it.

“If you’re a Republican business owner in a Republican area, you’re just as likely to have been affected by the storm as people in Democratic areas. So there are some things that are beyond our partisanship and certainly, natural disasters are one of them,” Street said.

The Philadelphia Department of Commerce is urging business owners to take photos of damage, both before and after any repairs are made. Officials also want business owners to fill out a damage assessment survey to help the city document “the extent of damage and to see where resources may be needed.”

Additional information for residents and businesses — with rolling updates and FAQs — are available on the city’s website.

WHYY political reporter Katie Meyer contributed reporting.

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