WHITTIER — The Chamber of Commerce arranged for a top federal official to update business leaders last week on relief efforts since the Oct. 1 earthquake, but some merchants who say they have had problems obtaining loans are upset that they were excluded from the meeting.
"I think it stinks," said Milt Pate, owner of Pate's Auto Works, who is in the process of appealing his loan rejection to the Small Business Administration. "I thought it should have been open to the people" who needed questions answered.
Chamber President Jerrold S. Perisho said the goal of the meeting was for the city to gather information on the progress being made by the SBA in the relief process, not to bring individual problems before Robert L. Belloni, area director for disaster assistance in the Western region of the SBA.
However, one chamber board member did take up meeting time to tell Belloni about her problem in appealing a disaster relief loan for a business. Melanie Bickley gave Belloni her case information and Belloni said he would look into the matter.
"I don't think it was unfair that she took advantage of the opportunity to speak with him," said Perisho, president of the Whittier Area Federal Credit Union. But he agreed that other merchants should have had that chance, too.
Perisho said the meeting will end up helping many other people who have complained of having problems with the SBA because "an excellent line of communication was established with Mr. Belloni."
Belloni spent most of the nearly two-hour meeting May 4 in the City Council chambers, talking about how much money had been loaned to Whittier homeowners and merchants since the earthquake.
Attending the meeting were Mayor Victor A. Lopez, City Manager Thomas G. Mauk, Chamber Executive Director Bruce Martin, Uptown Assn. Executive Director Marilyn Neece, Uptown banker Dave Todd, Planning Commissioner Larry Haendiges, Perisho and Bickley. Several reporters also attended.
Belloni told the group that about two-thirds of the loans applied for by Whittier residents had been approved. More than 1,800 Whittier residents have received a total of $40.5 million in loans. The earthquake caused $60 million in damage to private property in Whittier.
Belloni said 126 applications from Whittier residents are pending, and he promised that a decision would be made on those loans by Saturday. Loan appeals were filed by 78 people, and about half of those appeals resulted in loans, he said.
Perisho said there are no plans to bring Belloni back for a meeting with residents. The chamber intends to tell members about last week's meeting in the group's next newsletter, he said.
Meeting Called Important
The meeting with Belloni was important, Perisho said, because it dispelled rumors that thousands of people were tied up in the SBA loan process.
"The tendency is to hear nothing but the bad news," Perisho said. "It's no secret that some people have had difficulty. . . . What we heard is that the vast majority of appeals that have been filed have been processed."
But for those in SBA limbo, that news was small consolation.
Pate said the meeting's organizers did not invite the public because they did not want "everybody pecking away" at Belloni. "I would have liked to have gone," Pate said.
If his appeal for a $175,000 loan is rejected, Pate said he will find another way to pay for the rebuilding of his shop, which had to be demolished after the earthquake.
"That's my savings," Pate said. "That's my retirement. I may even have to cash in our IRAs to do it."
Roy Karsten, another Uptown businessman whose loan request is pending, said: "Any meeting the city has should be open to anybody. If they were discussing SBA loans, they should be talking about it with the people who had property damage."
For Karsten, an SBA loan could be the difference between the life or death of his 20-year-old business, which sustained more than $30,000 in earthquake damage.
"I've been running in the red every month," he said. "I can't operate this way."
Robert Wakefield, owner of Wakefield Automotive and Brake, was notified a couple of weeks ago that he would receive a $260,000 loan from the SBA.
Length of Time
"The only problem I have is the length of time it took to get it," Wakefield said. "I didn't have the funds to go ahead and do any rebuilding until I was sure I had a loan of one kind of another.
"First thing you know, it will be October again," he said, "and we probably won't be back in business by that time."
Though his loan has been approved, Wakefield said he would have been interested in attending the meeting.
"I don't know why they didn't let it be known to people in the area unless they were afraid they were going to get bombshelled by a lot of problems," Wakefield said.
Belloni said people having problems with their SBA loan applications should telephone the agency at (916) 978-4578, (916) 978-4605 or (916) 978-4589.