WASHINGTON — About $1 of every $5 in loans the Small Business Administration directly made to companies hurt by the Sept. 11 attacks has fallen into default, leaving the government with an uphill effort to recover millions of dollars in taxpayer money.
The agency is just now learning about the magnitude of businesses that went under or stopped making payments. Its Sept. 11 direct disaster loan program often gave recipients two years before their first payments were due, according to documents reviewed by Associated Press.
The agency directly lent $1.2 billion to more than 10,000 companies that made specific arguments about how their businesses were hurt by the suicide hijackings in 2001 that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York and damaged the Pentagon in suburban Washington. A plane bound for Washington crashed in rural Pennsylvania.
Of that amount, $245 million is in default, the records show. Small Business Administration investigators consider a loan in default if it has been charged off or liquidated or is more than 60 days delinquent.
Agency officials say they have written off less than $10 million of the default total and will make strong efforts to recover much of the rest of the money by collecting collateral, negotiating settlements with borrowers or bringing delinquent loans up to date.
The $245 million "does not represent the actual loss to the government, which, because of settlements and recoveries on collateral, will be less than this amount," agency spokesman Michael Stamler said.
Among the loans already written off, taxpayers are picking up the tab for a $992,000 loan made to an Atlanta hotel; $986,000 to a Florida boat dealer; $620,000 to a Maine broccoli farm; and $38,900 to a Lubbock, Texas, computer store.
Even some that are making their payments are concerned about their recovery.
"Business just isn't doing as well as it was in the past," said Winnie Mou, owner of Manhattan Travel Inc., located about a mile from the World Trade Center site. Her company began paying back its $11,600 loan last year.
Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Small Business Committee, wants the small-business agency to extend the period of time before companies are required to make loan payments, hoping to ease the burden.
"A lot of these companies are just beginning to have to pay back their loans," she said. "What is the government going to tell them when they can't?"
A second Small Business Administration-backed Sept. 11 program, which guaranteed loans made by banks to businesses across the country more broadly hurt by the economic downturn, has a much smaller default rate, records show.
Of the $3.7 billion lent by the Supplemental Terrorist Activity Relief program, only $191 million has been charged off or liquidated or become 60 days overdue. That's a 5% default, compared with 20% for the Small Business Administration's direct lending program.
Historically, other government disaster lending programs have written off about 5% of loans. The largest Small Business Administration write-off in the last quarter-century came in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when taxpayers absorbed $122 million of $356 million in loans, slightly more than a third.