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County looks to earmark $134 million in stimulus funds

By Staff | May 18, 2020

The Lee County Board of County Commissioners held an emergency meeting on May 12 and discussed how to allocate $134 million in funds that it received through the CARES Act.

The county has received $194 million in total from the state’s allocation of funds from the federal CARES Act, which Congress authorized as part of its stimulus package in response to the economic fallout caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of the remaining $65 million in funds, more than $36 million has already been assigned for the Lee County Port Authority and more than $19 million is going to LeeTran, according to information presented at the meeting by Assistant County Manager Glen Sayer. Human Services will receive $2.8 million and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office will receive more than $300,000 for personal protection equipment and disinfectant supplies. There will be $710,992 allocated to public safety.

County Manager Roger Desjarlais said the funds the county is receiving is supposed to be spent on expenses incurred as a result of the COVID-19 health emergency from March 1 through the end of the year. The expenses cannot cover items previously budgeted. Any funds which are not spent will be returned to the federal government. The county cannot use the funds for a shortfall in revenues.

“At some point, some of the programs that may not be eligible today may be eligible in the future by applying for dollars to the state,” he said.

Desjarlais said he has been in talks with Sheriff Carmine Marceno about reimbursing the department for overtime expenses incurred since the state of emergency was declared in the county.

He also said he was seeking approval from the commissioners to put together a plan that he can bring back to the commissioners on May 19 to formalize and adopt.

Sayer said the county’s allocation was part of $3.7 billion directed to local governments in Florida with 12 counties with populations of more than 500,000 receiving funds.

Among the proposals outlined by Sayer to use the funds on are a grant program to distribute personal protection equipment to high contact business sectors looking to reopen. He is also proposing a “matchmaking” program to connect suppliers and buyers through the Economic Development Office. Sayer said his office will target restaurants and medical offices as those who will need the supplies. Gloves, surgical masks and hand sanitizers would be the type of equipment available.

“We can’t get enough of this stuff,” he said.

One of the proposals outlined by Sayer are $5,000 grants for businesses with 25 or fewer employees whose operations were severely curtailed by state of emergency orders by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Another proposal involves $3.5 million for childcare support, including vouchers to offset the cost of daycare, summer camp and educational services for families. Sayer said the United Way has an existing voucher program which the county could partner with.

He also outlined a plan by which the county could use approximately $20 million in funds to help with rental assistance programs and low income home energy programs to benefit an estimated 10,000 households. The funds will go to the landlords directly or the utility companies.

Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass said those in need of rental assistance services should be submitting applications now.

“This is not going to be an overnight thing,” Chairman and Commissioner Brian Hamman said. “This is going to take weeks.”

Marcus Goodson, executive director of the Lee County Housing Authority, said that in addition to a need for rental assistance there is a lack of affordable housing units.

“We still struggle desperately with the lack of affordable units in this community, workforce housing units,” he said. “We are bracing for new families as a result of this virus to enter into the system for housing assistance. Rental assistance, mortgage assistance again is great, but if we lack the units to house these families than I am not sure what the solution is.”

Goodson is looking for millions of dollars to go after tax credits and government-backed bonds to build a new affordable housing complex.

“We desperately need it,” he said.

Among those who appeared at the meeting seeking assistance from the commissioners were local food banks experiencing a surge in demand, a craft brewer hurt by the closure of bars, and a local youth baseball league representative. Several homeless people spoke about a cutback in services.

A representative for the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida said distribution of food has doubled since the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Commissioner Frank Mann said. “We are doing our best to get back to what some people call normal.”