In a workshop following a marathon public hearing on a private school's location in a residential neighborhood, the Polk County Board of County Commissioners heard suggestions about how to divvy up the $140 million second-go-round of federal relief money.
In the first go-round the county allocated COVID-19 relief money to almost 40,000 residents and businesses to the tune of $120 million.
This time, the county's American Recovery Plan allocation will come in two checks, each for $70 million, one this near and one next year, said Deputy County Manager Todd Bond, who handles the county's finances.
Bond said last week that the money this time could be used not only for small business relief, rental and utility help, but for needed investments in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure. Bond said the U.S. Treasury Department said improvements to water and wastewater systems and treatment were eligible for the funds as were stormwater improvements and widening the accessibility to internet services.
Bond suggested the county divide the money into four buckets: $4.4 million for small business help; $60 million for infrastructure; $42 million for community and public health initiatives and $51 million to offset general county impacts and to mitigate those impacts.
To help small businesses, Bond suggested the county refill two Small Business Development Center employees back on staff; award up to $25,000 to businesses with 5 to 100 workers who were negatively impacted by the pandemic shutdown and focus on assisting small businesses owned by women and minorities.
In the infrastructure bucket, according to Todd's plan, the allocation would pay for multiple small drainage projects countywide, same with stormwater projects, slightly higher ticket utility projects and for facilities projects, use the money to replace or upgrade air conditioning and heating systems in county buildings to combat the spread the virus and do minor improvements within some facilities to promote social distancing.
Commissioner George Lindsey asked when the funds had to be spent, and Bond said this time, the money could be spread out over several years, rather than the brief deadlines for the earlier funding. “We have until 2024 to have money encumbered (set aside for a specific purpose or project) and have to have it spent by 2026,” he explained.
“This presents us a scenario that is all doable,” said County Manager Bill Beasley. “And, it makes sense to us.”
While the money could be used to boost broadband service, Beasley told commissioners, “I'm not suggesting a broadband project right now because the guidelines are just too broad and I think we need to talk about that some more.”
Commissioner Neil Combee added: “We need experts to tell us what's going on with this but it is important and I see the need for it. We just need to see what's out there and what's coming.”
“This has taught us that this is a countywide issue,” added Commissioner Bill Braswell.
“Broadband is a big deficit in Polk County,” said Commissioner Martha Santiago, “ and we need to address it.”
Some of the money could be used to defray costs of two major well field projects the county and the Polk Regional Water Cooperative, one southeast of Lake Wales and the other northwest of Lakeland, said Beasley.