Request for special aid to Newtown, particularly for reliable broadband service, deferred to what board members hope will be a second round of funding from the state
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It took them about five-and-a-half hours during a Special Meeting on Aug. 19, but the Sarasota County commissioners finally agreed to staff recommendations for divvying up $18.9 million in CARES Act money from the federal government to help businesses and individuals suffering during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
In fact, most of the money — $10 million — has been designated for business owners, arts organizations and nonprofits — including Chambers of Commerce — with a cap of $20,000 per application. Dave Bullock, interim president and CEO of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County (EDC), presented a list of criteria for applicants seeking the funding, which the board members ended up tweaking — one of several motions they approved unanimously before the session ended.
Potentially, based on a slide Bullock showed the board, as many as 2,000 businesses could get grants if the county receives the rest of the $75.7 million from the state of Florida, out of the $8.3 billion allocated to the state through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES).
In researching how other counties handled business grants, Bullock explained, the EDC found that $10,000 was the most common level of award.
Later, Commissioner Nancy Detert offered the opinion that, in “the first go-round” of the funding, only 500 businesses will end up getting help.
Bullock said he expected the commissioners would want the grants to go to the businesses hit the hardest — those in the hospitality/tourism, service and the retail sectors — as indicated in the results of an EDC survey.
Chair Michael Moran noted his focus on businesses he described as “Before COVID … they’re functioning; they’re profitable; they’re efficient; they’re making payroll on Friday. … COVID hits, and now they’re in trouble. Those folks are what it’s all about for me.”
Their second highest priority, the board members emphasized, is funding that will be allocated under the Food, Water, Shelter Category.
The preliminary allocation to that “pot” is $6 million.
Finally, the board members approved a recommendation for $1.5 million to the Health and Medical category. Those funds would go “to support entities [that] provide public health and medical services,” including behavioral health care providers and long-term care facilities, a slide said.
The county has 130 licensed elder care facilities with about 6,000 residents, Chuck Henry, the county’s Health Officer who also heads up the Health and Human Services Department, noted during his presentation.
Ultimately, if the county receives the full funding from the state, Henry said, $6 million would be allocated for the private sector through the Health and Medical category, with $3 million of that designated for the elder care facilities, $2 million for medical care providers and $1 million for behavioral health care providers.
The commissioners also agreed this week to defer to a potential second round of funding an allocation of $3.6 million to reimburse the county’s constitutional offices — such as the Tax Collector’s Office; other elected or appointed officials; municipalities; and the county itself for additional expenses in the Safety and Security category.
During the discussion, staff members made it clear that they would work on implementing the approved programs in September and that they would start getting checks out as soon as possible.
Bullock of the EDC pointed out of the business grants, “An application has to be developed,” consultants the county is hiring have to be brought on board to help with the review of the documents submitted, an online application portal will have to be built, and guidelines and Frequently-Asked-Questions (FAQs) will have to be made available.
Karen Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller, “has increased her processing capacity,” Bullock added, referring to the fact that Rushing’s staff will process all the checks. “And then there’s going to be this big plug of applications …”
Rushing told the commissioners that she and Bullock had discussed her staff’s role in the CARES Act response. “We’ve talked about doing multiple check runs in a given day,” she said. However, she emphasized, she has to have “legitimate documentation to support legitimate expenditures.”
“I think the consensus of this board is to get this money on the street … as fast as humanly possible,” Chair Moran responded.
The Newtown pleas
During the Open to the Public portion of the special meeting, most of the 10 speakers — including former Commissioners Christine Robinson and Paul Caragiulo — asked the board members for funding to provide expanded broadband connections in Newtown, in North Sarasota, especially as a measure of helping families with children who will be educated via remote technology when the Sarasota County School District opens the new school year.
Robinson, executive director of the Argus Foundation, pointed out that, as of the morning of Aug. 19, the 34234 zip code, which includes Newtown, has been “the hardest hit community” in the county, with almost 800 COVID-19 cases and an infection rate of 11.9%.
Newtown, she added, “has been unable to access these [CARES Act funds],” so Argus was asking the commissioners to “give special consideration for this population, who has been devastated by this pandemic.”
Renee James Gilmore — who grew up on 30th Street in Newtown — also pointed out, “Some of the residents run nonprofits. They’re very small nonprofits,” often operated only by volunteers. Additionally, the community has what she called “microbusinesses,” which, Gilmore noted, lack the resources to easily obtain assistance to deal with the ramifications of the pandemic.
Finally, Gilmore said of Newtown residents and business owners, “We are largely disconnected and on an island when it comes to infrastructure,” including access to the internet.
Her internet service went down the previous day, she noted, pointing out “how disconnected from the world you are” when that happens. “In this particular zip code, people face that every single day, in every walk of life.”
Commissioner Christian Ziegler told one speaker representing Newtown that he understands the importance of “a good internet system” for businesses and for children utilizing remote learning opportunities. He offered willingness for the commissioners to do “anything we can” to help provide assistance to Newtown, including ensuring the community has reliable internet access.
However, as the board members were wrapping up their discussion late in the afternoon, Commissioner Charles Hines said that while he was in favor of providing such assistance to Newtown, “No way do we have enough specifics today.” His recommendation, he added, was to wait until after the county receives the hoped-for second round of funding. Then, Hines said, money could be dedicated to Newtown.
Yet another issue the board members agreed to consider with a second round of funding was a request from Visit Sarasota County, the county’s tourism office, for $186,500.
“This is a request from the bedrock of our ‘bed tax,’ the hoteliers,” Commissioner Alan Maio said. (The 5% bed tax is charged on accommodations rented for six months or less time. It pays for many county tourism-related initiatives, including beach maintenance and renourishment.) “I think asking Visit Sarasota for a refinement of what exactly this is and where it’s going … makes perfect sense,” Maio added.
Hines responded that he felt the first round of money “needs to go to keep people in their homes” and to enable businesses to remain open or to reopen, “so Visit Sarasota has something to actually advertise.”
Helping individuals and the nonprofits who assist them
During his remarks, Henry, director of Health and Human Services, pointed out that nonprofit organizations that provide food and mental health services, among other examples, submitted 56 funding requests to the county by Aug. 6.
Those requests added up to $7,966,424, according to a slide he showed the board. The largest portion — 36%, or $2,896,306 — would go toward maintaining or expanding services, the pie chart said.
Another 13% of the money — $986,103 — would be used to address an increased need for behavioral health services, the pie chart showed.
After reviewing those submissions, Henry explained, staff determined that 35 of the requests were appropriate for the Food, Water, Shelter category, adding up to $4,009,094.
Additionally, staff proposed a $5,000 cap for assistance per individual household, Henry said. That money could be used for rent and mortgage payments, vehicle payments and repairs, childcare expenses, and phone and internet services, for examples.
Out of the $18.9 million the commission formally accepted from the state on Aug. 19, $6 million would be divvied up through the Food, Water, Shelter category.
“This is my favorite page [of the staff presentation],” Commissioner Nancy Detert told Henry. If the commissioners can help people with those types of expenses, she said, “That would be super.”
Henry noted the income limit for an application for individual aid through that category would be 120% of the Annual Median Income (AMI) of the Metropolitan Statistical Area in which Sarasota County is located. For a household with one person, the income limit would be $64,320; for a household with four members, it would be $91,800, according to a chart Henry showed the board.
The recommendation for 120% AMI, Henry explained, was based on the cost of living in Sarasota County.
Henry pointed out that it would cost $20 million to serve 4,000 persons at the $5,000 limit. However, he continued, based on information staff had obtained from other counties already dispersing CARES Act funding, most applications likely will be for smaller amounts.
If the county receives the full CARES Act funding from the state, Henry said, then staff’s recommendation is for $4.5 million to go to 35 nonprofit human services organizations and $14,420,000 to go to households.
Finally, Henry explained, staff has worked with the nonprofit Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center, located on 17th Street in Sarasota, to vet the applications in the Food, Water, Shelter category. The center’s staff has the necessary experience and expertise to facilitate allocations of those funds, he stressed, with the goal of making sure all the money is used appropriately before the end of the year. Glasser/Schoenbaum is the nonprofit that manages the community’s Season of Sharing program, Henry added.
“They have a streamlined program,” Rich Collins, director of the county’s Emergency Services Department, added. “Our goal is to partner with them on moving the money out to the community … We’re looking at the potential of thousands of applications.”
Detert told Henry, “The concern I have is [that Glasser/Schoenbaum is] up there on 17th Street [in Sarasota]. … I love what they do,” she continued, but “our workforce is in North Port and south Venice. … They’re not going to drive up to 17th Street. … We don’t want to put these stressed-out people through any extra frustration …”
Then Collins explained, “We will have ‘ambassadors’ in all of the libraries,” to help people apply for the funding assistance. “We’re working with the library staff on what that might look like.”
“The day we start this,” Detert responded of the assistance programs, “there better be good communications with the public [about how to access the funds].”
That will be the next big focus for staff, Collins told her.
Wayne Applebee, senior manager in the Health and Human Services Department, added that neither the Glasser-Schoenbaum staff nor county staff can handle all of the work necessary to get the funding assistance distributed through the Food, Water, Shelter category. Glasser-Schoenbaum, he continued, will “work with the network of nonprofits within the Season of Sharing to help the clients that are already engaged [with] nonprofits …”
Further, Applebee said, “The county will ramp up its Contact Center [by hiring] temporary staff to deal with folks not with nonprofits.”
He also noted that the United Way of South Sarasota County will be assisting with the effort to disperse the funding.
Near the end of the meeting, Chair Moran passed the gavel to Vice Chair Maio to make a motion calling for county Administrator Lewis to bring back to the board on Aug. 31 a draft of the contract with Glasser/Schoenbaum. That motion passed unanimously, as commissioners had asked numerous questions about the expense of utilizing the nonprofit for that service.
Concerns about ‘administrative oversight’ expenses
One other issue that prompted discussion centered on county staff’s proposal for $1.4 million for “administrative oversight costs.”
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis explained that all the CARES Act money the county receives will have to be dispersed by Dec. 30. Anything left will return to the U.S. Treasury. Therefore, staff proposed paying a legal consulting firm, Nabors, Giblin & Nickerson, plus a CPA firm, Thomas Howell Ferguson, to assist with the process, including ensuring compliance with U.S. Treasury criteria for the expenditures.
Further, Lewis noted, temporary staff assistance will be necessary to deal with all the funding applications, and — as Bullock of the EDC had noted — the Web-based software services that will be necessary to provide an online portal for applications.
“Our goal today is to reduce friction and increase velocity of funding to the community,” Rich Collins, director of the county’s Emergency Services Department, pointed out. The reason staff recommended hiring the consulting firms, he added, is because of the potential that 10,000 applications might need to be handled for all the various programs. If, for example, he said, it takes three hours to process one application, total staff time would be 30,000 hours. “We’re going to need support to make that happen.”
When Detert asked how much the payment would be to Nabors, Giblin & Nickerson, Collins replied, “Right now, about $100,000. It covers all the programmatic oversight,” he added, and the county could be reimbursed for the expense.
Other concerns, Collins, Lewis and County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht underscored, deal with uncertainty about the expenses the U.S. Treasury Department will approve for reimbursement. Those have differed in some cases from direction staff has received from the Florida Department of Emergency Management (FDEM), which has been charged with overseeing how the CARES Act money is utilized in the state.
Collins characterized the situation thus: “Often times, there’s some inconsistences” between what the Treasury says can be covered by the funding and what FDEM says. The Office of the County Attorney, especially, he added, had pushed back against some of the FDEM assertions that conflicted with the Treasury’s guidelines.
Those inconsistencies are another reason, staff members emphasized, that they need the consulting firms’ assistance, to ensure the county will not end up having to return money to the U.S. Treasury.