BETHLEHEM — The Town Board approved two local small businesses, Bake for You and Dorsey Sign Company, to receive a grant of $35,000 each on Wednesday, April 10 after both applications were reviewed by the Microenterprise Grant Application Review Committee last month.
Dorsey Sign Company, however, was the subject of a debate among the Town Board members as they acknowledged concerns related to alleged political affiliations.
The business, located on 750 Delaware Avenue in Delmar, has been solely run by Heather Dorsey since it first opened in January 2016 and it creates signage and lettering for its clients.
Heather did not attend the Town Board meeting. However, she said that when she found out she received the grant money, she was “thrilled because it’s a big deal for my business and I never had any funding like this before. Part of it just seemed surreal but ultimately, it’s everything I’ve worked so hard for.”
She also expressed hopes of expanding her business and she plans to use her grant money to purchase specific machinery and equipment.
Heather is the brother of Marc Dorsey, the Democratic candidate running for Town Highway Superintendent this year who was endorsed by the Bethlehem Democratic Committee, and the daughter of BDC member Leo Dorsey.
The Town Board is made up of one Republican and four Democrats, the latter three of whom — Town Supervisor David VanLuven, and Town Board members Joyce Becker and Dan Coffey — were recently endorsed by the BDC in this year’s election too.
Citing the above family and political connections, Jim Carriero, the Bethlehem GOP-endorsed Republican Town Board candidate, appeared before the Town Board to voice his concern that VanLuven, Becker and Coffey should not be voting at all on whether Dorsey Sign Company should receive any grant money or not.
“It has the appearance of impropriety. So I understand it’s a fine operating company and et cetera, but there’s clearly a connection between members of this board and the Democratic Committee and the people that are applying for the grant, so I ask you to please recuse yourselves from this vote,” he said.
Elizabeth Staubach, the town’s Economic Development Coordinator who also appeared that night, explained that the Microenterprise Grant Program aims to award grants, from $5,000 to $35,000 each, to rising and existing small businesses that plan to be located in or will expand within Bethlehem.
The program has awarded grants every other year since its inception in 2014 and is offered by the state Office of Homes and Community Renewal.
For this year, the town had received $200,000 in state aid this past December which would help at least 10 businesses. Half of the grants must at least go to start-up businesses that began operations less than six months ago, at the time of their application.
In a follow-up phone interview, Staubach said that qualifying small business owners were able to start applying on Feb. 25 to Town Hall where the Department of Economic Development and Planning staff looked through and determined which were eligible, before they were further reviewed by the town’s Microenterprise Grant Application Review Committee in March.
Staubach confirmed that this Town Board-appointed review committee consisted of seven local residents with comprehensive experience in law and finance, as well as some who were grant recipients themselves in past years.
The full list of members and their position titles is available on www.townofbethlehem.org/709/Microenterprise-Grant-Program.
After the committee reviewed the applications, they made recommendations to the Town Board members who would then either approve or reject giving part of the grant money.
While grant recipients could begin spending their grant money the day after being approved by the Town Board, Planning Division director Robert Leslie said they must keep a record of their expense receipts to later submit to the town to begin state reimbursements.
According to town documents, grant recipients must also attend Entrepreneurial Assistance Training classes beginning on June 20 at Town Hall where they will learn more skills and information on better managing their businesses like taxes, accounting, advertising and marketing.
Town Attorney James Potter, who sat with the Town Board members, explained the code of ethics associated with potential conflict of interest.
He said a recusal is required by a board member “if they have a direct or indirect financial or material benefit that accrues to the board member or a relative of the board member.”
He, however, said that a board member’s recusal is not required “if the majority of the board would be disqualified and effectively, you can have no action. So in this case, the concern is apparently political affiliation. If three members of the board had political affiliation, you wouldn’t have enough for a majority so a recusal would not be required under those circumstances. But regardless, the political affiliation under the ethics law is not a basis for recusal here because there is no direct or indirect financial benefit for any board member.”
VanLuven said that he believed business owners also have the right to express their political views and “patronage politics is dead in Bethlehem. It’s a great scare tactic to get someone whipped up on a campaign season but those implications are flat out wrong and I have real problems with them.”
He added that regardless of Heather and her family’s political views, Heather’s business has been successful which “is something we want to foster in town, not tear them down for political affiliations.”
Town Board member Maureen Cunningham said she was not aware of the political controversy until the day of the meeting.
“I think it’s sad if we start to bring that partisanship into the Town Board because we are really all trying to do the best job we can for the town,” she said. “I really don’t think it’s a partisan issue.”
She also brought up how she and fellow member Jim Foster, the sole Republican Town Board member, first came onto the board at the same time and she could not recall a voting decision they had done that was related to their party lines.
Foster, however, announced his recusal from voting but he explained that it was due to having “personal relationships with members of the Dorsey family,” instead of any possible political affiliations.
He said he wanted to avoid any appearance of potential impropriety for the aforementioned reason although he acknowledged that his recusal was not required by law.
Fellow Town Board member Joyce Becker asked Staubach what type of people and how many served in the Microenterprise Grant Application Review committee.
“The review committee was established by the Town Board to serve as an objective body as applications come in,” Staubach answered, adding that the program had not witnessed any political-related controversy in past years. “Politics was never involved in this process and we’ve been using our original program protocol since 2014.”
Fellow member Dan Coffey said that he saw the Microenterprise Grant Program’s application process as “fair.”
He also gave an example of how he had recused himself from voting on board decisions before due to knowing applicants personally during his time in the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals previously, to indicate he had been through a similar type of deliberation before.
Following the discussion, VanLuven, Becker, Cunningham and Coffey voted in favor of approving the grant money to Bake For You and Dorsey Sign Company, while Foster abstained.
Heather said that such political controversy “have no merit whatsoever. There’s no credibility and there’s no political concern here. The grant was determined by a grant committee of seven professionals, which exists to keep politics out of this process. I received the grant because my business is deserving. I’ve worked very hard to get to where I am now.”
She also encouraged other local small businesses to take advantage of the town’s Microenterprise Grant Program.
She brought up that had she known about it sooner, she would have originally applied for the program back in 2016, the year her business first opened.
She also said that she is looking forward to the Entrepreneurial Assistance Training classes and “in fact, several professionals have reached out to me already to want to guide me and my business plan, because they see what my business is capable of.”
She added that she felt honored to be the program’s 21st grant recipient and she is eager for her business to potentially hire employees and grow more efficiently.
“This all means so much to me and nothing can take that away,” she concluded. “I’m excited.”
According to Staubach and Leslie, the Microenterprise Grant Committee is still reviewing five more applications and interested small business owners can still apply.
“It’s always best to come meet with me first,” said Staubach. “So you can take advantage of this great program.”
For more information, contact Elizabeth Staubach, the Town of Bethlehem’s Economic Development Coordinator, at [email protected] or call 518-439-4955 ext.1189, or visit www.townofbethlehem.org/709/Microenterprise-Grant-Program.