All businesses and nonprofit corporations in Hamilton Township have until Dec. 31 to register with the municipal government, an effort the township administration says will streamline communications with the business community once complete.

The township announced its new business registry program Oct. 21, saying the COVID-19 pandemic brought to light a disconnect between the municipal government and the Hamilton business community. Of particular interest was the fact that no one in the township government knew just how many businesses operated in town or how to contact them. The COVID-19 pandemic brought this into sharp focus when, in March, township staff wound up going door-to-door to tell people about the governor’s executive order closing down businesses.

Hamilton Township community and economic development director Fred Dumont said the township will use the registry to communicate emergency information quickly to business owners, to share details about grants and other assistance for businesses and to ensure law enforcement and fire officials have information they might need to best respond to a call at each business. The township said, in a press release, that the information would also be used to connect businesses with the Hamilton Township Economic Development Advisory Commission, Shop Hamilton and the Hamilton Partnership.

Township officials have framed the registry in a positive light, saying its whole purpose is to help local businesses. But they aren’t taking the registration process lightly, with council approving an ordinance in April that would fine any business not registered by Jan. 1, 2021. All offenders will be fined $100, with any subsequent lack of action earning businesses a fine up to $300. There is no fee to register, however.

The registry application—available online and in-person at the municipal building—requires a business name, address, tax ID number, business owner name, address and contact information, as well as a copy of the business’s Tax Registration Certificate, be filed with the township.

The township studied models used in Toms River, Cinnaminson, Ocean Township, Pennsauken and municipalities outside of New Jersey before forming Hamilton’s plan. Cinnaminson, for example, has an ordinance requiring registration that is similar to Hamilton’s—but charges businesses a one-time fee to register and has non-compliance fines of up to $500.

Dumont said many large municipalities in New Jersey have similar registries, and Toms River was particularly helpful as a township close in population to Hamilton.

Hamilton and Toms River seem to be alone, though, as a review of ordinances from other similarly sized suburbs—such as Edison Township and Woodbridge Township—did not reveal any requiring business registration. Edison does have a form on its website for business owners to provide contact information to its department of public safety. In Woodbridge Township, the local Chamber of Commerce has an app where members can register to have their business listed. Woodbridge’s Office of Emergency Management has a database of any property within the township that might have a “special circumstance,” like underground oil tanks or other hazards to first responders, township public information officer John Hagerty said.

Despite Hamilton’s effort being government mandated, Dumont said he has only heard negative feedback from “a couple people.” Dumont said he’d be glad to speak with any business owner who might have reservations about registering to see if a resolution could be met.

“Good certainly outweighs any possible bad in my eyes,” Dumont said. “Listen, there’s no fee to this. I don’t want anybody’s money. But I just need information. How would a business feel if they had propane and gasoline in the back, and there was a fire, and our first responders went in there, and there was an explosion, and somebody got killed or hurt? It’d be a problem.”

Dumont also said the registry has opened dialogue between the township and its businesses. He pointed to recent conversations he has had with local restaurants about how to best navigate the ever-changing rules guiding eateries amid the pandemic. It’s just an extension, he said, of what his department has done to help restaurants during the pandemic, such as working to remove restrictions on outdoor dining, providing grant money to any restaurant needing propane to heat their outdoor seating areas and occasionally giving them masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.

The registry could also be a potential solution to helping the township match grant funds to recipients. Hamilton received $90,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds in August, Dumont said, but still has $20,000 left unused. The township government was able to give $5,000 to 14 businesses in Hamilton.

Hamilton Township is now working to distribute $400,000 in CARES Act coronavirus relief funds it received from the State of New Jersey. Since the money must be committed by Dec. 1, the process has been intense, Dumont said. But the registry has made getting the word out easier. Dumont’s office already had received about 70 applications by Nov. 12. Each grant is $5,000.

The township also started to prepare in November to launch a program to distribute $673,000 from the federal government for mortgage and rent relief. The funds would help those late either on rent or mortgage payments, and are available for businesses, landlords and residents. It’s another instance, Dumont said, where the registry could come in handy.

“Here’s the thing I want to avoid: We have a business that’s hurting out there, and we don’t have their information, and we go out and give out this whole $400,000, and they come a week later and say, ‘I’m getting ready to close my doors, I could use some help.’ Because we didn’t have their information, we’re not able to get them that application,” Dumont said. “That’s the thing I want to avoid no matter what.”