Jan. 9, 2006--Despite coming under fire recently because of loan mismanagement after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Small Business Administration says it is keeping the same procedures in place as it continues to approve a record amount of emergency loans for Gulf Coast hurricane victims.
As of Dec. 30, loan approvals for small businesses and homeowners impacted by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma had reached $2 billion -- second only to the $4 billion in loans approved after the 1994 Northbridge, Calif., earthquake.
Loan approvals in December 2005 alone hit $1 billion, averaging out to a record-pace of some $36 million a day, according to SBA figures. By comparison, emergency loans issued after the entire 2004 hurricane season totaled just $1.86 billion.
The SBA has faced negative publicity as of late, due to what critics called a slow initial response to the Gulf Coast hurricanes, as well as an internal report that showed a some 85% of businesses sampled did not demonstrate that they actually qualified for the post-9/11 loans they received.
Carol Chastang, an SBA spokeswoman, credited the ramped-up pace with a series of measures enacted in October to streamline the lagging application process. These included waiving the need for owners to file tax and business records covering the past three years, among other requirements. The SBA has also moved to expedite loans under $100,000 for businesses meeting specific requirements, such as satisfactory credit, a gross income over $25,000 and an SBA loan history.
Chastang said the application process was hampered early on by the scale of devastation in the region, with many communities simply inaccessible to loan inspectors. Under normal circumstances, loan applications take from seven to 21 days to process, she said, but were "considerably longer" given the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
To date, the agency has completed more than 146,000 site inspections across the Gulf Coast region, SBA Administrator Hector Barreto said in a statement Tuesday -- the equivalent of a full year's workload in just three months, he said. To meet the high demand, the agency has increased its Office of Disaster Assistance staff five-fold since early September, from about 880 full-time employees before the storms to more than 3,900.
Yet despite the accelerated rate of approvals, no new measures have been put in place "beyond the usual procedures" to ensure the loans are getting into the right hands, Chastang said.
Barreto said the renewed pace was achieved "while maintaining our responsibility to taxpayers not to approve loans that cannot be repaid."
On Dec. 27, an internal report released by the SBA's inspector general said only nine of 59 emergency loan recipients in the months after 9/11 showed the attacks "adversely affected" them -- including loans to a perfume store in the Virgin Islands and more than 100 Dunkin' Donuts and Subway outlets.
The loans, issued under a newly minted Supplemental Terrorist Activity Relief program, were created to enhance the SBA's existing disaster loans for small business nationwide that were "adversely impacted" by the attacks. About 7,000 small businesses received loans under the program.
The report, which followed an internal investigation at the request of Congress, found that lenders complained of "unclear and poorly defined requirements," which resulted in confusion and mismanagement.
Barreto has since defended the agency, saying the program was implemented as Congress intended. Other SBA officials have said the inspector general's report took an overly narrow view of the eligibility criteria.
Critics claim mistakes were made after 9/11 and that the faster pace of hurricane loans opens the door for similar problems. "No matter what happens, they're going to claim nothing is wrong," said Lloyd Chapman, founder of the American Small Business League, a federal small-business policy watchdog group based in Petaluma, Calif.
Chapman said he believes ongoing cutbacks by the Bush administration have made the agency's disaster-loan program near impossible to manage effectively. "The federal government has the ability to get things done, if it wants to," he said. He credited the recent surge in loan approvals to bad publicity from media coverage of ailing Gulf Coast businesses.