News arrives just before Thanksgiving
On Sept. 12, during the Sarasota County commissioners’ last discussion about the $201.5-million federal grant that the county received in May to address unmet needs resulting from Hurricane Ian’s damage in 2022, county staff reminded them about the expectation that, before the end of November, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would approve the proposed funding allocations that the board members had agreed to submit for review.
Laurel Varnell, the manager of what was christened the Resilient SRQ program, and Steve Hyatt, a program manager in the Office of Financial Management, advised them that day not to stray too far from HUD’s focus on allocating the largest portion of the money to housing needs.
Although Commissioner Neil Rainford had proposed numerous adjustments to the broader “buckets” of funding that Varnell and Hyatt had recommended in July, based on HUD guidance, Chair Ron Cutsinger told his colleagues, “I’m just a little concerned” about Rainford’s ideas, which drew funding away from the general housing allocation.
“I guess I don’t understand what the risk is,” Rainford responded.
“We’re talking about speed,” Cutsinger told him.
Varnell elaborated on that: “We can’t spend anything until HUD approves the Action Plan in whole.” She was referring to the general allocations for funds, based on a needs assessment that county staff had undertaken and that HUD staff also had pursued.
“I just don’t want to get too bogged down” in back-and-forth dialogue with HUD representatives, Cutsinger said, which could lead to delays in the county’s receiving the money.
The more back-and-forth discussions with HUD, Varnell confirmed, the more potential for delay in receiving the $201.5 million.
Commissioner Mark Smith agreed with Cutsinger. “Let’s get the money,” Smith said, “and then we’ll figure out how we’re going to spend it.”
Finally, Commissioner Michael Moran also concurred with that approach, even though he had offered suggestions just a few minutes earlier about how further adjustments could be made to eliminate the specificity in Rainford’s suggestions.
“We got to be careful,” Moran said. “[HUD officials] wanted 72% of this [money] going to housing, whether we like it or not.”
The funding proposal that the commissioners had approved in July — which staff ended up sending to HUD — called for only 50.3% of the federal money to go toward housing.
Moran made the motion to approve the general “buckets” of allocations that the board members had worked with staff to adjust during their regular meeting on July 11.
Nonetheless, Moran told Rainford, “Your Excel spreadsheet’s not lost on me.” He suggested Rainford keep it for later consideration.
After all, both Varnell and Hyatt had noted their understanding that amendments to the spending plans could be submitted to HUD after the federal agency gave its initial nod to the allocations of the grant funds.
As it turned out, on Nov. 21, HUD notified county staff that it had approved what is formally the $201.5-million Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) Action Plan.
County staff made the announcement during the afternoon of Nov. 29.
“Now that the Action Plan has been approved,” a county news release said, “staff will continue to build and launch the programs outlined in the plan. Staff anticipate launching applications for its major programs in early to mid-2024 to include Infrastructure/Mitigation and Housing Programs,” the release pointed out.
“More information about open application periods, eligibility criteria, active solicitations, and other requirements will be posted at scgov.net/ResilientSRQ as soon as it becomes available,” the release added.
“Staff have worked diligently to begin building these programs while the Action Plan was in review and will continue this work until each program is finalized and applications launch,” the release also pointed out.
In May, county staff announced that Sarasota County was one of 70 recipients nationwide — but one of only a few local government bodies — to receive the HUD funding in the form of the CDBG-DR grant to assist with the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.
During a May 24 presentation to the commissioners, Varnell explained that all but 15% of the money has to address unmet needs that tie back directly or indirectly to Hurricane Ian’s landfall in Southwest Florida in late September 2022.
The remaining 15%, she pointed out, can be used for mitigation purposes — to prevent future storm damage. Such efforts do not have to have a direct link to Ian, she noted.
She also told the board members that day that 70% of the funding must be used to benefit low- and moderate-income residents. 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), Hyatt of the Office of Financial Management pointed out.
For the MSA including Sarasota, the 2023 Area Median Income 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.
The July plans and Rainford’s suggestions
In July, following the adjustments that Moran proposed, the buckets ended up with the amounts as follows:
- Housing — $101,458,250.
- Public Facilities and Infrastructure, including mitigation initiatives — $70 million, or 34.7% of the total. Part of those funds would go to the municipalities in the county and to nonprofit organizations.
- Economic Recovery, specifically — at Moran’s recommendation — for trades and career training, especially those that could be linked to housing reconstruction, such as plumbing — $15 million, or 7.4%.
- Planning and Administration — $15,076,750, or 7.5%.
The Housing category would include voluntary buyouts and acquisitions, which, Hyatt explained, would focus on properties with repetitive storm damage because of their locations. The land left vacant, he said in July, “must be used for green space,” according to HUD regulations.
Other funds in the Housing category would go toward reimbursements to homeowners for repairs of damage, which would have to be based on documentation, including proof of borrowing money or the use of savings; new affordable, multi-family developments; and homeowner rehabilitation or reconstruction of housing. Referring to the later line item, Hyatt noted that some property owners might be working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Small Business Administration or their insurance companies on such a process, but they might not be able to obtain all of the money they need. Income verification would be a necessary step before the award of any funds, he pointed out.
The only specific project that staff recommended was the improvement of South River Road, which is a major evacuation corridor not only for South County residents but also for those in parts of Charlotte County. The funding was set at $25 million.
During the Sept. 12 discussion, Rainford told his colleagues, “I spent quite a lot of time meeting with different individuals, stakeholders” and municipal leaders, along with listening to the staff presentation of the Draft Action Plan to 74 people on Aug. 9 at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice.
Then Rainford reviewed his proposed changes in the “buckets.”
He called for the Housing category funding to drop to $68 million, which would represent 34% of the HUD grant. Out of that money, $33 million would go toward new affordable multi-family housing and $30 million to homeowner rehabilitation and reconstruction. The remaining $5 million would be granted to Family Promise of South Sarasota County, which, he emphasized, especially helps young families.
In the Public Facilities and Infrastructure category, he allocated a total of $113.9 million. The largest amount — $20 million — would be used for five City of North Port water control structures, he said, because the pace at which the city has been working on them has been lagging.
In that category, he also included $9.4 million for a South County Regional Training Academy that potentially could be designed for use as a shelter, as well. “We had an issue in Ian with the shelter space [in South County],” Rainford noted.
The training program, he added, would be funded by money that Moran had proposed for economic development.
Rainford also recommended $40 million for South River Road improvements.
Among his recommendations for the Economic Development bucket, which totaled $6.5 million on his spreadsheet, was $3 million for expansion of a nursing program.
“One of the No. 1 things that I hear” from South County residents, he emphasized, is the need for more nurses, given the new medical facilities in place and in the planning stage.
Finally, Rainford reduced the allocation for Planning and Administration to $13,135,000.
“I think it’s a great way to deliver in a major way for South County,” Rainford told his colleagues.
The first response came from Cutsinger. “We’re not trying to get too specific on individual projects, correct?” he asked Varnell.
“That’s correct,” she replied. The goal should be larger buckets, she continued, based on information that she and Hyatt had received. The application process, Varnell added, would be the time for the commissioners to decide on the specific projects to fund.
After further discussion, the commissioners opted to keep the “buckets” they had approved in July.