County ends up disbursing $20.1 million through Emergency Rental Assistance Program provided by U.S. Treasury Department

Funds covered 13,800 months of rental aid and 5,640 months of utilities help

On April 11, during the regular meeting of the Sarasota County Commission, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis recognized the more than 50 county staff members who worked to disburse $20.1 million provided through the federal government’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP).

“Many of the team members were pulled from their regular positions to assist with [ERAP],” Lewis told the audience gathered in the Commission Chambers of the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice. Other workers in those departments “were not always happy about that,” he said, prompting laughter.

Representatives from the City of Sarasota and the City of North Port’s Social Services office assisted the county staff members, Lewis explained.

Moreover, he pointed to the critical help from the office of Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller Karen E. Rushing.

As Laurel Varnell, director of the county’s ERAP program, noted during a presentation later that day to the commissioners, the funds covered a total of 13,800 months of rental assistance and 5,640 months of utility assistance.

She reminded the board members that the program began on May 5, 2021, and it ended on March 22. The funds, she noted, came from the U.S. Department of the Treasury to assist persons who were suffering financial hardships as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To be eligible for help, applicants had to meet specific criteria that was listed on county webpages while the program was active.

Prior to reading a resolution presented to the team that morning, Lewis asked staff to show a video about the ERAP program to the people gathered in the Commission Chambers. That video featured ambassadors who helped people sign up for ERAP at six locations across the county, as well as individuals who had benefited from the program.

Former County Commissioner Carolyn Mason of Sarasota, who served as an ambassador, pointed out in the video that the people who sought help “were not looking for a handout.” For them, she added, the program represented “a hand up.”

The voice of Donald Batty, one of the recipients of the aid, quavered during part of the video when he said, “I’m so, so very thankful for what this organization has done for me.” He added, “When you need help, you need help.”

Lewis noted during his remarks that ERAP enabled “1,151 families [to remain] housed.”

“I can’t thank you all enough,” Lewis told the team members assembled that day for the recognition.

The following are other details that Varnell provided during her presentation:

  • 11,630 payments were issued.
  • Ambassadors logged more than 6,000 interactions with applicants.
  • 65 recipients were able to move to new rental locations.
  • 60 evictions were stopped.

Varnell explained that the team worked with landlords, persuading them to halt the eviction processes they had started with tenants by ensuring the landlords that ERAP funds would be coming to them.

For another example, Varnell talked of a woman who had been homeless for about a year who was able to move into a new apartment. That woman has had stable housing for the past year-and-a-half, Varnell said.

Not only did Varnell express her appreciation to the commissioners for their support of the program, but she offered special thanks to Clerk of Court Rushing’s staff members for the expediency with which they were able to send out payments. Rushing’s staff realized “the urgency of this program,” Varnell pointed out.

Varnell singled out David Beirau, director of internal audit and the Inspector General of that office, for recognition, noting that team members engaged in almost daily conversations with him.

In a county news release about the conclusion of the program, Rushing said, “As the County Comptroller, my office is responsible for auditing payment requests prior to making a disbursement of county funds. Our focus was on processing payments quickly for those entitled to financial resources as defined by the U.S. Department of Treasury. To that end,” Rushing added in the release, “my office audited approximately 14,300 payment requests made for utility and rental assistance that were accompanied by proof of need.”

“We appreciate the professionalism of county government staff as we worked together to ensure that federal guidelines were met and those in need received resources provided by the federal government,” Rushing said.

When Varnell completed her April 11 presentation to the commissioners, Chair Ron Cutsinger responded, “Great work,” adding his appreciation for all the team members’ efforts, as well.