Brent Batten: Commissioners start to carve up Collier's share of CARES Act cash
No matter how you slice it, $67 million is a lot of money.
For starters, how about we slice it into quarters?
That’s how much, about $16.8 million, Collier County commissioners will be looking at Tuesday as they begin to map out the process for spending the county’s share of CARES Act cash.
The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act was signed into law by President Trump on March 27. It includes a $150 billion coronavirus relief fund to provide payments to state, local, and tribal governments navigating the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak.
In Florida, counties with populations over 500,000 are to receive their share of the state’s allocation directly.
On Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled a plan under which smaller counties, like Collier, will receive a total of $1.275 billion through the Florida Department of Emergency Management. Initially, those counties can get up to 25% of their estimated allotment. The rest will be provided as counties produce documents detailing expenditures.
Tuesday’s county commission agenda includes information from County Manager Leo Ochs and his staff on how the money might be used.
The decisions, and there will be a lot of them, will be made by the commissioners.
The money can be used to cover expenses due to the public health emergency that were not accounted for in the budget most recently approved as of March 27 and were or will be incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30.
Several potential uses for the money are outlined in the executive summary provided to commissioners.
Expenses incurred directly by the county, overtime for first responders, for example, is one.
But the possibilities extend far beyond that out into the community directly affected by the virus and the economic shutdown it spawned.
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Options before commissioners include:
Individual rent, mortgage and utilities payment assistance. That could be administered through an existing agreement with the United Way that deals with financial aid provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Florida Housing Finance Corporation.
Small business relaunch grants. These one-time grants would offset the costs of reopening a business. They would be limited to businesses owned by Collier residents and employing 25 people or fewer.
Food security. Noting that food banks and pantries have faced extraordinary costs throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the county staff suggests one-time grants could be made to assist with increased costs due to food purchases, additional staff hired, and/or additional rental space necessary.
Commission Chairman Burt Saunders says that while the money can go to reimburse governments, he'd rather it go elsewhere.
"My view is all of these dollars should be used for the people who have suffered the most from this pandemic," he said. "That's really the purpose of the CARES Act. How can we get these dollars to the people who need it the most?"
Keeping tabs on $67 million will be a full-time job. Several of them, in fact.
Demand for grants is likely to be high. Since Lee County, one of the larger counties getting its funding directly, unveiled similar programs last month, it has received more than 10,000 applications for assistance, Collier’s executive summary states.
So Ochs is asking for eight temporary, full-time employees to be hired to oversee the new spending.
Once the program ends, those positions will go away. The salaries can be paid out of the CARES money, so there’s no impact on the existing county budget associated with the new hires.
As mind-boggling as the figure $67 million is, it is a drop in the proverbial bucket when it comes to the cost of the coronavirus to Collier County, its businesses and residents.
It will take a long time to recover those costs, but the process can inch forward on Tuesday.
(Connect with Brent Batten at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Facebook.)
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