Collier County will continue to hold off for now on reimbursing local government entities and its own arms of county government with federal coronavirus funds.
Instead, commissioners on Tuesday unanimously voted to send more aid toward a community still reeling from an ongoing pandemic.
"Let's get as much of this money as possible into the hands of the people that need it," Commission Chairman Burt Saunders said.
Saunders said any federal aid money left after community needs are filled could be pro-rated to individual government entities, such as cities and fire districts, on the basis of how much they have asked for and how much aid money is still available.
Commissioners are expected to revisit the issue in November. The end of the year is the deadline to expend the federal funds.
The cities of Naples and Marco Island, fire districts for Immokalee and Greater Naples, and the county's Convention and Visitors Bureau all are eligible for funds and have asked for reimbursements.
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The county's tourism bureau, for instance, has requested close to $1 million in aid money as it works to market the area to visitors after the pandemic dealt a blow to the local tourism and hospitality industry. Naples would be eligible for $315,000 and the Greater Naples Fire Control District for more than $234,000, according to the county.
Greater Naples Fire Chief Kingman Schuldt told commissioners Tuesday that his district has so far spent roughly $175,000 on supplies and "necessary equipment to maintain critical services to the community."
He asked county officials to consider the district's total application for more than $350,000 for expenses to date and future expenditures.
"We greatly appreciate any consideration for any funding," Schuldt said.
Naples' coronavirus-related expenses, among other things, include costs related to cleaning, technology, personal protective equipment, rapid response testing for first responders and measures taken to close citywide parks, beaches and other locations, according to city officials.
But county officials have so far held off on funding requests from public entities, adhering to commissioners' directives earlier this summer to defer reimbursements for government agencies.
The county itself also incurred expenses totaling close to $800,000 that would be eligible for aid but have not been reimbursed to date.
Sean Callahan, executive director of corporate business operations for the county, told commissioners some government agencies, including the Collier County Sheriff's Office, did not submit requests for funding given the commission's previous directive.
The county uses virtual portals housed on the county's website for the application process for all coronavirus aid programs.
With the portals to request the relief aid only open for two-week windows, Commissioner Bill McDaniel said he had heard from residents who didn't know about the availability of assistance, sometimes even after the period to submit an application had closed.
He said he would like to see the portals reopened and agreed with others on the board that reimbursements for local governments should come later. The county government's revenue streams, McDaniel said, haven't been as damaged as the private sector.
"I would much rather see this money go to our not-for-profits, our individuals, the businesses that suffered because of the shutdown orders and the like," he said. "I would really, really rather see that money be disbursed to them first."
The county will have about $12 million it can reallocate to different funding pots, Callahan said. That does not, however, account for reimbursing any government agencies.
Callahan said in a phone interview Wednesday that the county will reallocate the $12 million toward its community and health services funding category.
The portals for applicants to request individual assistance will reopen Oct. 12, he said.
The county plans to bring in additional staff and will look at applicants who during the first go-around either didn't have all the necessary documentation or weren't able to submit it in time. Officials will contact them and ask them to resubmit their applications, Callahan said.
The marketing campaign for the tourism bureau will in the meantime be funded using county funds, and officials will seek reimbursement later, according to Callahan.
The Coronavirus Aid and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, was signed into law at the end of March, and Gov. Ron DeSantis announced in June a plan to distribute $1.275 billion to Florida counties with populations below 500,000, such as Collier.
Collier was allocated about $67 million, which included a $16.8 million direct payment to the county. Commissioners in July signed off on proposed allocations for the aid money with large chunks earmarked for individual assistance, small business grants and help for nonprofits, health care and community providers.
Last week, DeSantis announced "the opportunity to begin to apply for a second tranche of funding, provided that the first tranche was accounted for and there was a spending plan along with the second request," Callahan said.
"So staff's currently working with the Florida Division of Emergency Management to work through that, figure out how we can do that in the most timely manner," he added.
In July, commissioners allocated:
- $15 million for individual assistance, which would help qualified residents and households with rental, mortgage and utilities payments
- $10 million for small business relaunch and rehire grants
- $30 million for community and health services initiatives, which included $5 million for childcare aid and $5 million for emergency food assistance
- $5 million for personal protective equipment (PPE)
- $7.1 million for reserves
So far, the county has $24.4 million in aid money committed. The majority of that, about $18.4 million, comes from the pot reserved for community and health services initiatives.
County officials have received 52 applications for a share of that money and were able to fund about 26 with the first allocation of funds that were available, Callahan said. The total funding applied for in that category amounts to more than $28 million, according to a county staff presentation.
The community and health services money is designed to help nonprofits, health care and community providers with increased costs and programs needed to respond to the pandemic.
That could mean, among other things, money for not-for-profits to provide services to residents seeking help with homelessness, job retention and health services; community education campaigns related to COVID-19 best practices; and public safety medical expenses, including enhanced contact tracing and data collection.
Under childcare assistance, the county received 21 applications and was able to fund 18 of those for a total of just more than $2 million.
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For the county's individual assistance program, officials received more than 1,200 applications during a two-week window.
So far, about $677,000 has been committed for individual assistance. However, Callahan said, as staff continues to work through applications officials expect to ultimately pay out $8.3 million out of the $15 million set aside for that pot.
For the small business assistance program, the county received close to 380 applications during a two-week window and has $50,000 committed so far. County officials anticipate spending $7 million to $8 million from the $10 million allocated.
On personal protective equipment, the county has received requests for 1,045 kits and has begun purchasing some of that equipment.
"Given the demand that we're seeing, we're expecting to spend about $3 million of the $5 million ... allocation," Callahan said.
The Community Foundation of Collier County has volunteered to help the county with the distribution of funds for the emergency food assistance.
So far, $2.1 million has been allocated to food banks in the area and the foundation is expecting to use the entire $5 million allocation by the end of the program, Callahan said.
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