Application process goes live this week for individuals and businesses seeking grants from Sarasota County out of federal CARES Act money

Funding support planned to help those most affected by economic downturn resulting from COVID-19 pandemic

Editor’s note: The Sarasota News Leader is providing general reporting on the novel coronavirus to readers for free as a public service.

This is a still from an instructional video created by Sarasota County staff to help people apply for the grants. Image courtesy Sarasota County

At noon on Sept. 16, Sarasota County staff formally began accepting grant applications from individuals and businesses affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Rich Collins, director of the county’s Emergency Services Department, made the announcement during a Sept. 15 press briefing conducted via Zoom.

As approved by the County Commission on Aug. 19, $10 million will be used for grants to business owners, arts organizations and nonprofits — including Chambers of Commerce — with a cap of $20,000 per application.

Likewise, the board approved $6 million under a Food, Water, Shelter category, out of the $18.9 million it has received from the state through the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF). Those grants will not exceed $5,000 per household.

All applicants must comply with eligibility requirements.

These are the eligibility requirements for small businesses. Image courtesy Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County

As of 5 p.m. on Sept. 16, 168 applications were being processed for small businesses, and 173 applications were in processing for individuals, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant reported.

Potentially, the county could receive a total of $75.7 million out of federal CARES Act money to help a wide variety of people who have suffered because of the negative impact COVID-19 has had on the economy. The money is being funneled through the Florida Department of Emergency Management (FDEM), Collins has explained.

Asked during the Sept. 15 press briefing whether he had any news about if or when the county would get any of the remaining CARES Act money from the state, Collins replied, “We’re watching very closely for information from the Governor’s Office …” Other counties have been asking about the status of their remaining funds, too, Collins said.

In the meantime, Chambers of Commerce, the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County (EDC) and public information officers for the municipalities in the county have been helping spread the word about the assistance that is available, Collins pointed out. Additionally, he said, “We’ll be putting signage in our libraries.”

Staff also has created separate checklists for those seeking business/arts/nonprofit aid and for those who wish to apply for individual grants. Those checklists — and a wealth of other CARES Act information — are available on dedicated county webpages, Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant said during the media briefing. The webpages may be found at www.scgov.net/CARES.

This is the checklist for those seeking individual assistance. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Grant also pointed out that a hotline will be available — separate from the county’s Contact Center line — for people who have questions. That dedicated phone number is 941-861-CARE (2273). Operators will answer the hotline from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, Grant added.

As part of a focus on helping minority business owners and individuals apply for the grants, Collins explained, staff has been working closely with the Sarasota County Chapter of the NAACP, which has offered its assistance.

Moreover, instructional videos have been created to explain the gamut of details regarding the application process. Those may be found at the links below:

The videos points out that payments out of the CARES Act funds will be made only for expenses related directly to the pandemic. The period covered is March 1 through Dec. 30.

Collins has stressed to the county commissioners that all the funds — regardless of how much money the county ends up receiving — must be allocated by Dec. 30, unless Congress approves an extension of that deadline.

If Dec. 30 remains the cutoff, he has emphasized, any remaining CARES Act money will have to be returned to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Rich Collins addresses the commissioners in April. News Leader image

“We’re looking forward to pushing this funding out as quickly as possible,” Collins said on Sept. 15.

After an application is found to be complete, with all eligibility criteria met, he continued, the staff of the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller’s Office will write the grant check for the entity or individual.

County staff is unable to predict how many applications will come in at a given time, Collins pointed out, or how many of them will be filled out completely. Those two factors are keys, he said, to how fast checks can be distributed.

As the program gets up and running, he continued, staff will provide a “transparency page,” so members of the public can see in real time how many applications have been submitted.

Waiting on final Comcast approval for student internet aid

Collins also provided an update this week on the county initiative to provide internet access to eligible students in the Sarasota County School District who signed up for remote learning.

“The agreement is in the Comcast attorney’s queue,” Collins said. County staff is awaiting final approval. After that has been granted, he continued, staff will work with the school district to ensure that the families of students who meet the criteria for that aid learn about the program.

Staff should be able to launch that initiative within a day of getting the go-ahead from Comcast, Collins added.

Up to 5,800 students countywide meet the criteria, Collins told the commissioners on Aug. 31. However, not all of the students are in Comcast’s service area.

This still from one of the county instructional videos shows the initial step in submitting an application for an individual or business grant. Image courtesy Sarasota County

To be able to receive that assistance, Collins explained that day, the students must be enrolled in the National School Lunch Program, through which they receive free or reduced-price meals; or their families must be receiving federal housing aid or another type of federal needs-based assistance.

On Sept. 15, Collins reiterated one other point he has made to the commissioners: Guidance on how the CARES Act money can be used “changes daily” in directives from the U.S. Treasury Department. That situation, he and County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht have told the board members, has been a challenge.

The goal, Collins has stressed to the commissioners, is to ensure that the county will not be required to repay any of the CARES Act funds. Staff has been working hard, he has said, to avoid any federal allegation that the money was not used appropriately.

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