Flood-damaged businesses in Lismore say disaster financial aid is taking too long

Flood-damaged businesses in northern New South Wales say promised disaster aid is taking too long.

“I’m not sleeping – completely, completely stressed out,” miller Kristen Gardner told North Lismore at 7:30 a.m.

“I can’t ask them to fix something that can’t be paid for.”

Mr. Gardner’s sawmilling and essential oil business is barely surviving.

Ten weeks ago, floodwaters fell on the roof of his workshop, destroying all his papers, computers and damaging much of his precious machinery.

He applied for two flood relief grants for small businesses of up to $50,000 six weeks ago.

He finally learned the request had been approved on Tuesday – less than a day after 7.30am asked the NSW customer service department why the request was taking so long.

Mr Gardner said the delay had taken its toll.

“Unfortunately we actually needed help six weeks ago… nobody understands until they come here and see how bad it really is,” he said.

Ellen Kronen says the process of asking for help is “very frustrating”.(ABC News: Michael Lloyd)

The Lismore Chamber of Commerce and Industry said it encountered a “significant number” of cases where funding assistance was delayed for businesses devastated by record flooding in February and March.

“[It’s] Very frustrating – [the government is] asking for a lot of information that can be verified by other means,” chamber speaker Ellen Kronen said.

Ms Kronen owns a retail business which was damaged and said she had first-hand experience of how long it takes to receive government assistance.

The Chamber of Commerce secured funding after an eight-week wait.

“We’re three months away and I don’t know of any companies that will have money in the bank supporting them,” she said.

“A $50,000 grant really doesn’t go very far, but it does make a difference.

“It could help keep a member of staff or it could help pay for all the extra cleaning.”

Most shops in Lismore CBD remain closed.

“Let’s say in the CBD alone there would be at least 1,000 businesses – so maybe 50 of them are working again,” Ms Kronen said.

A man with a long gray beard wearing a floral shirt over a blue t-shirt.
Stephen Bernier says the government must “plan for extraordinary events to occur”.(ABC News: Michael Lloyd)

North Lismore businessman and Medicine Garden Australia owner Stephen Bernier said government bureaucrats did not understand what was happening on the ground.

He lost a large chunk of stock in his herb and tea business and recently applied for a small business relief grant.

“It’s out of their league…they’re just used to shuffling paper. It’s real work,” he said.

“The government must plan for extraordinary events to occur.”

In a written statement at 7.30am, a spokesperson for the NSW Customer Service Department said more than 223 assessors were working seven days a week to urgently assess grant applications.

“There have been over 34,011 applications for funding in the Service NSW-supported flood relief grant streams this year, indicating the scale of the disaster facing over 60 local government areas in NSW” , the statement said.

“Of these 4,185 grants have been disbursed with over 95% positive feedback from our customer service. Another 1,162 are due to be paid soon through their financial institutions.

“Due to the high number of applications that are incomplete or require further verification, Service NSW staff carry out additional inquiries before all grant decisions are finalized.

“In addition, Service NSW has identified over 1,775 cases ($22 million) of suspected fraud across all flood grants in calendar year 2022 to May 9 that are under review for fraud.

“Over the past 48 hours, we’ve also made changes to simplify the process for sole traders so they can get their applications streamlined and assessed faster.”