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Bill to give loans for spill revamped

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Restaurants and other businesses shut down by the nine-county water contamination emergency would be eligible to apply for low-interest state loans of up to $15,000, after a Senate committee Wednesday revamped the House's Small Business Emergency Act.

That was after the Senate Economic and Community Development Committee heard from two restaurant owners who said business is still hurting nearly three weeks after the Jan. 9 chemical leak.

"People have a real distrust, I guess, as to whether restaurants are really using bottled water," said Scott Miller, owner of the Ichiban restaurant and Bar 101 on Capitol Street in downtown Charleston.

He said business was down 50 percent the first week that his restaurant reopened, with patrons leery to dine out in the affected area.

Miller told the committee he lost about $30,000, including about $7,000 worth of sushi and other foods that had to be thrown out. He said his insurance company has not decided whether it will cover the losses on food.

"I probably had $30,000 of lost income, along with changing filters, and buying bottled water," he said.

Similarly, Tim Minturn, owner of the Southridge Chick-fil-A, estimated his losses at nearly $23,000, including $4,400 to replace restaurant equipment contaminated by the water, as well as the cost of having the restaurant's ice machine professionally flushed and cleaned.

Minturn said he also paid employees for days when the restaurant was closed by the do-not-use order for tap water.

"I felt like it was the right thing to do, under the circumstances," he said.

Minturn said he has 30 full-time, and as many as 45 part-time employees.

Minturn said his insurance provider denied a business interruption claim for the days his restaurant was closed, saying the coverage applies only if the restaurant were left without power or water, and technically, the water service was not cut off during the crisis.

"It's frustrating when you think your insurance is supposed to take care of you," he told the committee.

Minturn told senators he probably would not apply for one of the loans, if the legislation becomes law. Miller, however, said he's likely to apply for a recovery loan.

"I think a low-interest loan would be a great way to help folks out," he said.

On Wednesday, the Economic Development Committee fleshed out a bill (HB4175). that, as it left the House, provided a vague call for the governor's office to come up with emergency financial assistance for small businesses affected by the water crisis, and to come up with a funding source.

Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, lead sponsor of the bill, said Wednesday it was intentionally vague in order to get a bill introduced within a week of the chemical leak that would open negotiations with the governor's office to come up with a more substantive relief plan.

As amended, the bill would require the director of Homeland Security to submit emergency rules for specifics on how the loan program will operate.

Owners of affected businesses could apply for loans of up to $15,000 -- increased Wednesday from $5,000 after committee members heard the restaurateurs' testimony.

"I think that's a number that gives some relief," Sen. Art Kirkendoll, D-Logan, said in offering the amendment to increase the maximum loan amount.

The loans, which would be for up to 24 months at an interest rate equal to half the federal prime rate, would be funded from $2 million set aside from the governor's civil contingency fund.

"We're trying to do what's right, based on the money we have," committee Chairman Bob Williams, D-Taylor, said of the revamped bill. It goes to Senate Finance for further consideration.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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