About 62% of federal rental assistance funding disbursed to eligible county residents thus far

Altogether, with new source of money from American Rescue Plan Act, county will have up to $23 million to help persons suffering personal financial problems as result of pandemic

These are details of the funding disbursed by Sarasota County government through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). Image courtesy Sarasota County

Since May 5, 2021, when Sarasota County staff launched the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) with $13,097,138 in federal funding, more than $7.3 million has been released to people who have suffered negative economic consequences as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That was part of the report that Laurel Varnell, manager of the program, presented to the County Commission on Jan. 25.

Altogether, she noted, 62% of the federal funds the county received from ERAP has been disbursed, covering 5,687 months of rental help and 2,058 months of utility payments.

Varnell noted that the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller’s Office has issued 3,424 payments “almost as quickly as we can send them [to Clerk Karen Rushing and her staff].”

More than 1,500 applications have been processed, one of Varnell’s slides said, and staff members are at work on another 115 applications.

These are benchmarks that the U.S. Department of the Treasury said county staff had to meet, along with the county results. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Last fall, she continued, the U.S. Department of the Treasury sent county staff benchmarks for the spending. “We had to hit them,” she explained, or risk losing some of the ERAP money. Staff has been able to meet all of the benchmarks thus far, she added, and is “on track to meet or exceed” the others, going forward.

For example, a slide she showed the board noted that the county had to spend a minimum of 30% of the funds by September 2021, and it had hit the 32% mark.

By the end of this month, the slide said, 50% of the money has to be spent; staff already has reached the 62% mark.

Laurel Varnell. News Leader image

Varnell also explained that a second emergency rental assistance program approved by the federal government — ERA2 — “has a little bit broader [set of] criteria” than the initial program, which is being referred to as ERA1. Therefore, staff recently began using money out of its ERA2 allocation, Varnell told the commissioners.

Any applicant eligible for ERA1 aid automatically is eligible for funds from ERA2, she added. Those who have maxed out of the 15 months of assistance under ERA1 can seek another three months of help via the ERA2 program, she noted.

The county has received $4,145,260.92 from the federal government’s ERA2 program, which is part of the American Rescue Plan Act, Varnell said; the county potentially can get up to $10 million.

“To date,” a Jan. 25 memo from Varnell to the commissioners said, ERA2 “has disbursed $17,729, assisting three households.” The memo was part of the agenda packet for the Jan. 25 meeting.

The deadline for disbursing all of the ERA1 money is Sept. 30, one of Varnell’s slides showed. For ERA2, the deadline is Sept. 30, 2025.

With ERA2 program money in hand, Varnell continued, staff plans increased promotion of the federal assistance.

Her memo to the board members noted, “The Program continues efforts to reach eligible residents through multiple methods of outreach including emails, flyers/posters, social media posts, news coverage, and bus signage.” The county’s Communications Department also has been a key partner in getting out the word about the available funds, she told the commissioners.

Individuals are able to use the same application for ERA2, with a few modifications, and the same online portal, she noted.

On its website, the Department of the Treasury explains that ERA1 “provides up to $25 billion under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, which was enacted on December 27, 2020 …” ERA2, the website adds, provides up to $21.55 billion under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which was signed into law on March 11, 2021.

These are comparisons of the ERA1 and ERA2 programs. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Further, Varnell pointed out, the Treasury Department had asked county staff to speed up the application process. As a result, she said, staff has allowed applicants working in certain types of businesses or industries that demonstrably were affected by COVD-19 shutdowns — such as restaurants — to pursue a streamlined documentation process in requesting assistance.

This is a copy of the affidavit that applicants must fill out, regarding the impacts they have suffered financially because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Image courtesy Sarasota County

When Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked what will happen if the county does not disburse all of the Emergency Rental Assistance funding, Varnell replied that the remaining money would go back to the Treasury Department and likely would be reallocated to other areas of the United States.

Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller Karen Rushing. Image from the Clerk’s Office website

Commissioner Michael Moran told Varnell that he believed he was speaking for the entire board when he told her that the members recognize all of her work, along with the work of Clerk Rushing and her staff. Moran then indicated that the commissioners would do “anything … to keep supporting [Varnell] on this.” He added, “Boy, it’s felt seamless from our seats, and I’m sure it wasn’t.”

Earlier, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis expressed his appreciation to Rushing. The ERAP team would not have had such success, Lewis said, “without the partnership with Clerk Rushing and her team.”

“In most instances,” Rushing told the commissioners, “we had a check in the mail within 24 hours [of getting the necessary paperwork from county staff].” That meant her staff members were working on weekends and holidays, Rushing added. “It was that important to the community.”

Lewis also noted that Varnell has about 30 members of Sarasota County Government staff assisting her, some on a full-time basis. That has meant other people in those individuals’ departments have had to assume extra responsibilities, he added.

Rushing has had to pull some of her employees from their normal duties, as well, Lewis said.