(WIVB) – An Erie County program that was meant to help small businesses get through the pandemic left out thousands of those businesses- and many are asking why.

County officials say it was a matter of priorities.

Erie County set aside $19 million from CARES Act funding specifically to help small businesses through “Back to Business” grants.

The idea was to support local businesses that came up short with other government programs designed to help, like the Payroll Protection Program.

County officials say 5,000 small businesses applied for a piece of the action- but less than a fourth were approved- around 1,400 applicants. This has left many business owners suspicious.

“I am just not understanding how they asked the questions about what is your race, what your ethnicity is, things of that nature,” said Lisa Galus, owner of Exit Two Bar and Grill in the Town of Tonawanda. “In my personal opinion, it should be anyone who is in need of the grant that fits the criteria.”

Buffalo attorney Kevin Stocker told News 4 that there is a general agreement that certain groups such as minorities, women, and veterans do need greater assistance than others- but he questions including those criteria in the application.

“Certain programs are designed to help those in need, but you are not supposed to discriminate when giving out these packages of relief,” Stocker said.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s press secretary Peter Anderson released a statement to News 4 concerning the Back to Business Program, saying in part that grants were prioritized based on need, ranking higher for businesses in distressed zip codes, minority- and women-owned businesses, companies that were unable to open during the pandemic closure, and businesses owned by disabled veterans.

A spokesperson with 43North, who had the responsibility of deciding who would get a grant, told News 4 that they will be releasing a report in a week or two listing the grantees and how the decisions were made.