CARES dollars for families coming Sept. 18…maybe

On Thursday, Sept. 3, the Escambia County Commission unanimously approved the allocation of the first $14.3 million of its Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) funds. Families and businesses will receive half of the funds—$3.58 million each. The state is expected to release another $42.9 million to the county before the end of the year.

In voting for the allocation, Chairman Steven Barry said, “It’s very clear that the lion’s share of the money is going to direct support of our citizens. That’s what’s most important to me.”

The county’s website had no background documentation on the board meeting’s CARES Act presentation. Only three slides were released in the county’s COVID update on Friday, Sept. 4, that showed the allocations and the funding sources and the recent housing assistance application process results.

Deputy Administrator Chips Kirschenfeld told the commissioners the application process for the family assistance grants is tentatively scheduled for Friday, Sept. 18. However, the county has yet to release the specific details of the program.

The application process for housing assistance for homeowners and renters only lasted four days after the county was overwhelmed with over 890 applications with more than $3.3 million past due bills for the $813,451 made available by the Florida Housing Finance Corporation Coronavirus Relief Funds.

The remaining allocations of the $14.3 million covered rapid testing, food assistance, public health and safety, general government, FEMA reimbursement, operations and oversight, and replenishment.

The commissioners expressed concern over the $250,000 that County Administrator Janice Gilley budgeted for COVID-19 Operations & Oversight. At their Aug. 27 meeting, the commissioners voted not to hire Integrity Group for a contract beyond its initial work of helping county administration set up its online portal for applications and the basic parameters of the program, for which Integrity Group was paid $25,000.

County staff told the board that the $250,000 in the budget pays for the portal and staff time and overtime for the validation and processing of applications and training on anti-fraud measures.

At the board’s Aug. 27 meeting, the commissioners approved having different grant amounts available for households with those less than five receiving $1,500 and those with five or more members getting $2,500. Apparently, that staff had been discussing with the commissioner behind the scenes changing those amounts.

“I know that there has been some discussions I’ve had about combining what we had previously discussed as the $1,500 and the $2,500 into one,” said Commissioner Robert Bender. “Listen, I think what we were trying to do was well-intentioned, but it was told to me that maybe we just merge that into a $2,000 across the board because of what would be required to be able to certify those things.”

He continued, “And so instead of doing an over or under five in the household, each household would just be able to get $2,000.”

Barry noted that the slide presentation showed the board had been changed to that amount.

“My presumption is that there is discussions with the administrator and board members to kind of make that added on here,” he said.

The chairman asked Deputy Administrator Kirschenfeld, who was filling in for Gilley at the meeting, if the online portal would be available on Sept. 15, as announced the previous week.

“We had a good Zoom meeting with the Neighborly technical people, and we already have draft applications for the Family CARES Act and the Business CARES Assistance,” said Kirschenfeld. “And those should be finalized as early as next week. So the date that we had discussed beginning on Friday, Sept. 18, they’ve said that’s very, very doable.”

Barry brought up the subject of hiring people to help the county with CARES Act. He asked, “Is there even potentially an appetite just over the next two weeks for 15 hours of help or something?”

Commissioner May voiced support. He spent the first part of the week overseeing the county staff setting up assistance stations at the Brownville Community Center and expressed frustration at the agenda review about the lack of clarity on the eligible rule for housing assistance program. However, he objected to funds for an open-ended contract.

Barry suggested spending about “$125 or $150 an hour for the next two weeks, not to exceed up to 20 hours of help.”

“I hear Commissioner May, but I’d be willing to make a motion to just say not to exceed $50,000 for the remainder of the year,” said Bender. “I know that’s a lot of hours; the rates that I have seen have been very competitive with other contracts that I’ve seen from other counties … And so I would make a motion to allow the administrator up to $50,000 on the use of a consultant.”

“Mr. Chairman, I’m not going to support that,” said May. “I would support your $2,500 and looking at ROI in the scope and services provided. I’m not that opposed maybe to the $50,000 after the two weeks, but I’m not going to support $50,000 at this point.”

He wanted more details, and Barry stated he tried to talk with staff about it during the day but had been told to talk with Gilley. The chairman suggested $2,500 for two weeks of assistance.

Barry asked, “Chips, would you see some value in access to 20 hours of help for two weeks? Would that be of value to you?”

“Yes, sir, it would,” replied the deputy administrator. “It’s so difficult to define the scope because we don’t know what questions are going to come up that we’re going to need assistance on and advise on. But yes, sir, that would be good for the next two weeks.”

Bender wasn’t willing to amend his motion.

“There’s going to be a lot more, just making sure or working it to try and get this other 75%, which my understanding is getting a lot more difficult to do,” said Bender. “We’re trying to put these programs out for everyone but trying to get the governor to release some so that it’s not just reimbursable expenses.”

He added, “I’d like to have something in place that is longer than two weeks to make sure that we can have some continuity going forward as we go through this money.”

“We’ve already spent $25,000; it’s not like we hadn’t spent a dime,” said May of the payment to Integrity Group. “We spent $25,000 upfront in good faith, and now we’re giving $2,500 a week. I think that’s a fair pay for a fair 20 hours of work. And once that comes back with the scope, and if it’s justifiable, I would be supportive.”

Bender’s motion failed 3-2. Commissioner Jeff Bergosh made a motion for 20 hours for the next two weeks, which passed 5-0.

The commissioners discussed a slide presented by Kirschenfeld on the locations where residents could get assistance in filling out grant applications. The slide wasn’t displayed for citizens watching the meeting online and hasn’t been made available to the public or media.

Commissioner Barry wanted to make changes, and Bergosh was concerned no sites were in his District 1. The staff was told to get with the commissioners about sites in their districts.

Kirschenfeld said the county planned to man each location with four people. He said, “We were talking about 24 personnel, and we were talking about a five-day period from the 18th to the 22nd, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays noon-5:00.

The deputy superintendent was instructed to bring back a modified deployment plan to the board’s budget hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 8.

Inweekly will post online the details of the family assistance and business assistance grants as soon as the county makes them available.