Close to $50 million of Sarasota County’s $75 million in coronavirus relief aid paid to applicants

Although county resumed utility shut-offs as of Oct. 1, staff working with customers awaiting individual CARES Act grants and providing payment plan assistance

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

During a Dec. 9 update about the status of the county’s CARES Act funding assistance to businesses and individuals, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told the county commissioners, “Almost $50 million out of the $75 [million]” allocated by the state to the county has been paid to applicants.

Approximately $37.5 million has gone to businesses thus far, Lewis noted, with about $5.2 million awarded to applicants for individual aid, for such purposes as paying utility bills and making car payments.

He called those “very significant numbers.”

Funds also have gone to nonprofit organizations and arts and cultural organizations, thanks to commission approval this fall.

Further, Lewis reported that the state finally has approved the remaining $21 million for the county out of the $75 million county leaders were told to expect.

Staff has been working to allocate all the money before the end of December, which was the deadline set by the federal government.

Lewis commended Karen Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller, and Rushing’s staff for the many extra hours they have devoted to the CARES Act initiative. “Her team has to be comfortable with [the payments] in order to process [them],” Lewis reminded the board members.

He has explained in the past that staff has taken numerous steps to try to ensure that all the CARES Act payments meet federal guidelines. That way, the county has less risk that a payment will be challenged at a later date, which could result in the county’s having to repay money to the federal government.

Commissioner Nancy Deter. File image

“I would like a specific list on major businesses” that receive funds, Commissioner Nancy Detert told Lewis. “We have not — rightly so — influenced the distribution of the money,” she added. Still, Detert continued, “I think we should know who we gave the money to.”

Lewis replied that he would make sure the commissioners see the final list. However, he reminded Detert, the grants to businesses were capped at $49,999. Some companies have asked for $30,000, for example, he said, while others might have sought $8,000.

The average per business is about $40,000, Lewis added.

Then Detert brought up the moratorium county leaders had placed on utility shut-offs during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We extended that?” she asked Lewis.

(The county suspended utility shut-offs in March and then extended the moratorium a few times, finally ending it on Sept. 30, as Lewis had authorized, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant reminded The Sarasota News Leader, after it requested an overview of the relevant county actions.)

(The initial announcement of the moratorium came on March 18 in the form of a county news release. That said, “Sarasota County Government has waived water service shut-offs through April 13 for non-payment of utilities bills, as part of the county’s ongoing response to COVID-19.”)

In October, Lewis reminded Detert on Dec. 9, staff discussed the utilities payments issue with the commissioners. “Our utility runs as a business,” he continued. “We have debt on the utility.”

Staff made sure that county Public Utilities Department customers knew they could apply for individual assistance grants, Lewis pointed out.

In regard to the allocations for utility payments, Lewis noted, “We verified that [customers who received funds] paid the appropriate public utility.” The county could not transfer CARES Act money to its own department or to any of those in municipalities, he explained, because of federal guidelines for the distribution of the funds. Instead, customers who needed help were reimbursed for their utility payments.

If the county forgave all the unpaid utility bills resulting from the pandemic, Commissioner Christian Ziegler said, “Someone’s got to pay [the debt service on loans for the Public Utilities Department].”

This graphic provides details about the county’s CARES Act grants as of the morning of Dec. 10. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I think it’s important for the public to realize,” Ziegler added, that the county did have a moratorium in place for utility shut-offs. “We’re doing everything we can to help the people through the tough times,” he added. It was the Florida state government, after all, Ziegler said, that shut down businesses in April to try to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, and many people’s employment and income were affected. “We understand they’re struggling.”

If Congress ends up allocating another round of CARES Act money, Ziegler continued, then the commissioners would have more funding to help people pay utility bills.

On Dec. 4, when then-Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin reported that the city had extended its declaration of a local citywide public health emergency through Dec. 11, he added that the emergency order also placed a moratorium on water and sewer shut-offs for city utility customers through Jan. 15, 2021 That was, he added, “in recognition of the financial hardships caused by the pandemic.”

County shut-off data

In response to News Leader questions about the county utility shut-offs and related issues, Media Relations Officer Grant provided the following details as of Dec. 3:

  • The total number of delinquent utility account holders was 1,820.
  • The total number of customers originally scheduled for shut-off was 316.
  • The actual number of customers whose utilities service ended as of Dec. 2 was 177, with another 53 planned shut-offs for Dec. 3.
  • The number of customers whose service was restored after it was cut off because of lack of payment was 75.
  • The total number of customers who had applied for individual assistance was 891. (Some applied for CARES Act funds and signed up, as well, for a county payment plan). The total number seeking CARES Act funding was 414.

Grant pointed out to the News Leader that the Public Utilities team has coordinated with the county CARES Act team to identify individuals awaiting utility payment assistance. Such customers have been issued a 30-day extension of service, she added.

“As a reminder,” Grant further noted, “the county’s standard shut-off process does not occur the week of Thanksgiving or the week of Christmas holidays.”

This chart provides details about the eligibility of persons for individual CARES Act grants from the county. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Grant provided the following data as of Dec. 10, which was information she received that day from Dave Cash, assistant director of the Public Utilities Department:

  • Total number of delinquent utility account holders: 1,073.
  • Total number of customers originally scheduled for shut-off for the week of Dec. 7: 151.
  • The actual number of customer shut-offs as of Dec. 9: 97, with 16 planned for Dec. 10.
  • The number of customers whose service was restored as of Dec. 10 after it had been cut off because of lack of payment: 89.
  • The total number of customers who have applied for individual assistance through the county’s CARES Act program: 1,020.

Again, Cash noted, some of them have sought CARES Act aid at the same time they have signed up for payment plans. The data as of Dec. 10 showed 415 customers were waiting on word of a CARES Act grant and 605 were on payment plans, Cash reported.

For the period of Dec. 14-17, Cash added, 90 customers are scheduled to lose utility service.

Mike Mylett is the director of the Public Utilities Department. News Leader image

The county’s payment plan, Public Utilities Director Mike Mylett explained to the News Leader, calls for the total delinquent amount to be spread evenly over the customer’s bills for six months. For example, if a person owes $600 in back payments, the person will see $100 added to his or her utility bill for each of the next six months.

Mylett also pointed out that the actual shutting off of utilities service “is a process and not an immediate action. Account holders are notified several times with various options [for] reinstating their service/account.”

Last week, for example, Mylett wrote in an email Grant sent the News Leader, “There was a combination of 8 calls/letters made to delinquent account holders, in addition to website notices, social media posts and of course updates to media partners.”

Further, as of last week, Mylett reported, “[R]oughly 535 people have taken advantage of the payment plan thus far. That’s why the number of delinquent accounts is falling off.”

The typical process calls for shut-off to occur six to eight weeks after the first notice of delinquent payment has gone to a customer, Mylett explained. Given that the normal procedure resumed on Oct. 1, Mylett noted, shut-offs began last week.