Staff will have to develop ‘action plan’ following public engagement, with HUD having specified criteria for use of money
Sarasota County is one of 70 recipients nationwide of funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the form of a Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR), to assist with the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, county leaders learned officially on May 18.
The county has been allocated $201,535,000.
Although staff initially found out about the funding through a federal news release in March, the official notice came in the May 18 publication of the Federal Register, Kim Radtke, director of the county’s Office of Financial Management, explained to the commissioners on May 24.
As part of the regular board meeting that day, she and other staff members provided details about what HUD will require for expenditure of the funds, along with the timeline for getting the program underway.
Laurel Varnell, who will manage what has been christened the Resilient SRQ program, pointed out that the uses of the money have to meet national HUD objectives. All but 15% of the funds has to address unmet needs that tie back directly or indirectly to Hurricane Ian’s landfall in Southwest Florida in late September 2022, she said.
The remaining 15% can be used for mitigation purposes — to prevent future storm damage, Varnell pointed out. Such efforts do not have to have a direct link to Ian.
Further, 70% of the funding must be used to benefit low- and moderate-income residents, Varnell explained. Those are persons whose income is 80% or less of the Area Median Income (AMI) that HUD has set for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), Steve Hyatt, a program manager in the Office of Financial Management, pointed out.
Just this month, HUD released its 2023 AMI data, The Sarasota News Leaderlearned. For the MSA including Sarasota, the new AMI is $98,700. The HUD chart shows that 80% of the AMI for a family of four is $73,100. Fifty percent of the AMI for a family of four is $45,700.
In 2022, the AMI for the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton MSA was $90,400.
Further, Hyatt told the commissioners that the funds must be used for the most impacted and distressed areas — or, to use the federal government acronym, the MID.
“Our MID is the entirety of Sarasota County,” he added.
Further, the county will have six years to spend the $201.5 million, Hyatt said. However, he and Varnell noted that, unlike COVID-related federal initiatives, in this case, the county will seek reimbursements from HUD for the funds it spends.
The money can be used on a wide variety of projects, Varnell said. For example, it can go toward housing rehabilitation and reconstruction; the development of new affordable housing units; and county purchases of houses in areas especially vulnerable to storm damage, such as flood zones, with the sites then left as open spaces.
Infrastructure is another category in which the money can be spent, she continued. For example, she noted, bridges and roads that suffered extensive damage can be replaced. Money also can be used for matches for federal grants for relevant projects, she said.
Chair Ron Cutsinger expressed his desire to see the county make the most of the matching grants opportunities, referencing undertakings that the board approved when it was deciding how best to use federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. Private philanthropy and community foundation money was combined with the federal dollars in some situations, he noted.
Other potential projects could focus on helping re-establish businesses that had to close because of storm damage; reopening them would bring back jobs, Varnell pointed out.
Further, initiatives could be planned to improve the county’s resiliency to storms, she said.
Commissioner Mark Smith zeroed in on that potential, saying, “I’m looking forward to the suggestions that you all come back with.”
Commissioner Michael Moran brought up an issue that he has focused on throughout his tenure on the board, which began in November 2016: career creation.
Prefacing his points on that topic, Moran noted, “Boy, this is a big opportunity for this board for some policy discussion and how this [funding] gets spent.”
Already, he has been contacted by people — lobbying him, Moran said — on how to spend the federal money.
He stressed — as he has in the past — that with “career creation,” he does not mean just providing jobs. If members of households have careers from which they derive adequate income, he indicated, they will have the ability to withstand future disasters. He emphasized training in trades, citing roofing, air-conditioning repair and plumbing skills that also would be important in the recovery from a hurricane strike.
Moran told Varnell that he hoped that his suggestion would meet HUD’s requirement that the funding go toward unmet needs in the wake of a disaster.
Steps on the timeline
Varnell also showed the commissioners a timeline that staff will be following through the initial stages of the process. The key step, she pointed out, is to create an action plan for submission to HUD.
First, she explained, staff will complete an assessment of unmet needs in the county. State, federal and local data will be used as part of that undertaking, Varnell said.
In July, staff plans to publish its draft plan, which must be available for 30 days for public comment, Varnell continued. The commissioners also will need to conduct at least one public hearing on the proposed plan.
In September, staff hopes to be ready to seek commission approval of the plan; afterward, the document would go to HUD, she added.
The federal agency, she explained, will have the opportunity to tell staff “if we need to make any adjustments …”
It likely will be November or possibly even December, she indicated, before staff receives a response from HUD.
Further, “We’re developing a citizen participation plan,” Varnell said, while staff members are completing the required training to handle the program. “We’re working on a number of outreach materials to let everyone know about these funds and how they can participate [in the program].”
Additionally, she told the commissioners, staff is working closely with a number of stakeholders in the county, including community organizations, so public meetings can be held in June — probably the latter part of the month — to educate people about Resilient SRQ.
Staff also has created a webpage on the county website to enable the public to learn about the program. The webpages may be found by clicking on www.scgov.net/resilientSRQ.
During his May 24 remarks, Hyatt of the Office of Financial Management noted that it was unique for an agency of the federal government, such as HUD, to make a direct grant to a local government, such as Sarasota County. Nonetheless, a chart he showed the board said that Lee, Orange and Volusia counties also received direct CDBG grants for the disaster recovery program. The slide said that Lee County will get the largest amount — $1,107,881,000. That county is where Ian came ashore in Florida.
“I’m reminded once again of what an excellent financial services team we have here in the county,” Chair Cutsinger told Varnell, Hyatt and Kim Radtke, director of the Office of Financial Management.
Cutsinger talked about the efficiency of staff in handling the COVID-related federal initiatives, including the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which closed out earlier this year.
Varnell was the manager of that program.
“We have a high degree of confidence in your ability to move this forward,” he added.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Moran said.
More information about the Resilient SRQ program and the CDBG Disaster Recovery funds may be found in a HUD media release and on HUD’s website, a county news release said.
Varnell told the commissioners she expected to be back before them in June to provide an update on how the process is going at that time.