More money to be allocated to business grants
On Nov. 4, at the request of Sarasota County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, the County Commission voted unanimously to boost the maximum individual assistance grant out of county CARES Act funding from $5,000 to $10,000.
Further, the board members unanimously agreed to Lewis’ recommendation to apportion $4 million more from the “pot” of funds for individual assistance to the business assistance grant program. Another $1 million will come out of CARES Act money staff had set aside to pay for consulting services to help ensure that any distribution of the funding meets U.S. Treasury Department eligibility guidelines.
“We’ve been really able to bring that down,” he said of the spending for a CPA firm and a law firm to provide guidance in the processing of grant applications.
“We’ve been so successful” with providing business support, Lewis pointed out on Nov. 4, that the CARES Act money the commission committed to that effort is running out.
The maximum business grant is $49,999.
The reason he sought the shift in the individual assistance grant ceiling, Lewis explained, was that approximately 23% of the applications for that aid “were bumping up against that $5,000 max.” Thus, the board action, he said, would give staff flexibility to meet the demand from residents who need help paying rent and utility bills, for examples, as a result of job and income losses related to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
In late summer, the county received the first installment — $18.9 million — out of an anticipated $75.7 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding from the U.S. Treasury Department through the State of Florida. Then, during the board’s meeting on Oct. 1, staff indicated that the full $75.7 million is expected to be available.
In a Nov. 4 email to the commissioners, which he sent about an hour before the board meeting began, Lewis provided an update on county CARES Act grants as of the previous night.
Through the business recovery program, applications seeking $23,467,898 had been approved, and payments of $14,393,149 had been made, he wrote.
For individuals, $2,222,742 had been approved, and payments of $1,538,106 had been made.
In regard to the assistance to community arts and cultural programs the commissioners agreed to on Oct. 1, Lewis added, $1,095,810 had been approved, and payments of $654,381 had been made.
As Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out during the Nov. 4 discussion, county staff members have OK’d nearly $27 million “in the first, really, month and a few days” since the board members authorized the CARES Act grants.
Commissioner Charles Hines added of Lewis’ requests for board action that morning, “This is just a good example of our administration being flexible.” At the outset of the program, Hines noted, members of the public feared staff would be so rigid in its handling of the CARES Act funding that it would fail to disperse all the money allocated by the state.
Staff has stressed that, unless Congress extends the deadline, any CARES Act money not paid out by Dec. 30 will have to be returned to the U.S. Treasury Department.
“We knew we would need to make changes as this goes along,” Hines said.
On a related point, Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked Lewis for an update on the CARES Act funding the board approved to help Sarasota County School District students signed up for remote learning who did not have reliable internet access. (In August, the commissioners agreed to staff’s working with Comcast to provide such internet access.)
As of Nov. 3, Lewis responded to Ziegler, that program had served 100 students. “It wouldn’t be surprising if we get to 200 or 300,” Lewis added.
Lewis also noted that T-Mobile had launched a national program to assist students.
By the time the commission meets next — on Nov. 17 — Lewis said he would be able to offer an update on whether some of the funds the board members approved for the Comcast initiative could be transferred to other types of assistance, because students are getting sufficient help through other means.
Staff originally had envisioned that the Comcast program could help students countywide. Rich Collins, director of the county’s Emergency Services Department, explained during the board’s Aug. 31 budget workshop that, based on federal criteria, up to 5,800 would be eligible for the program.
However, Collins noted, not that many students live in Comcast’s service area.
For details about applying for county CARES Act assistance, visit the county’s webpages.