On Tuesday, Polk County Commissioners outlined plans to spend $126 million in federal COVID-19 relief money.
The initial plans proposed by County Manager Bill Beasley will earmark $40 million to help struggling small businesses and $30 million for individuals, with additional plans to allocate $30 million for medical testing and supplies and $26 million to offset unbudgeted expenses.
The grant money will not have to be repaid by the recipients, according to Polk County Budget Director Todd Bond.
After a long afternoon session Tuesday, all five board members instructed the county staff to move the process along quickly and to “get the money to the people.”
County officials will do so by hiring additional staff, working with local agencies such as the United Way of Central Florida on individual relief, using the county's Central Florida Development Council to assist small businesses and working directly with cities and chambers of commerce to get the word out about how to obtain the relief grant money.
“The sooner we get this money to the people, the better,” said board chairman Bill Braswell.
Under the federal guidelines, the money has to be spent by the end of the calendar year. The county board hopes to start processing claims by businesses and individuals within the next two weeks, instructing county staff to set up a call center, establish mechanisms online to request help and to define a process for the disbursement of the money.
Small businesses will get a large share of the funds, with a tiered-system outlining how much a business can receive based on how many people it employs. A self-employed business may receive $1,000; those with two to nine workers can receive $2,500; and businesses with 10 to 25 employees would qualify for $5,000.
Most of those expected to apply are “mom and pop” businesses, many of which were forced to close their doors after being classified as non-essential under the state's “safer-at-home” order. Bond explained that if other relief funds had been awarded through other avenues, those businesses could not apply for the county's funds.
Relief for individuals will be directed by the county's Health and Human Services Department, also partnering with United Way staff to funnel about half of the $30 million directed for those needing help with rent, utility bills and food.
Polk’s HHS department will take about 30 staffers who are already trained to handle such relief requests under existing programs to initially man the call center. Marcia Andresen, who heads HHS, told commissioners her staff was well-versed in how to manage an application process and that the United Way had resources and a network of other charities and non-profit organizations that would help with the individual requests.
There were, however, some concerns voiced that money might go to pay administrative costs for some agencies.
“We just want to make sure this money goes to the people that need it and we do whatever we need to do to get this money out to people right away,” Braswell added.
County IT director David Palmer told commissioners his staff had been working to see that the county's systems could handle a heavy load of applications filed electronically and also provide documentation should the county be audited.
“We know there will be an audit of this — and we want to make sure we can properly justify what we do,” Beasley said, in reference to the work Palmer’s team is doing.
Bond explained to the board that the unexpected federal funds were “just transferred to us” unexpectedly last week, with a four-page outline of how it could and could not be spent.
“It can't be used to replace already budgeted funds, or those we lose from taxes,” Bond cited as an example.
Also under the plan, the county earmarked about $30 million to beef up its virus testing — both for the disease and for antibodies in those who may have already had it — targeting first responders first, followed by medical and nursing or homecare personnel. That would be followed by seniors and high-risk residents, with the general population to follow those groups.
Polk Fire Rescue Medical Director Dr. Paul Banarjee explained that the county had the opportunity to use the funds to test about a fourth of its population — or about 120,000 people — for COVID-19 antibodies. He added that could be the largest group to undergo that type of antibody test to date nationally. He also said that such testing could ease some response protocols if it was known whether the patient had already had the virus or shown some immunity via the antibodies.
The plan also calls for providing personal protective equipment to firefighters, EMTs, sheriff's office personnel and county employees employed in jobs where they could potentially be exposed to the virus.
Banarjee and Polk County Health Department Director Dr. Joy Jackson will be working with the county's hospitals to implement the testing, determine locations and document the results.
The last $26 million of the windfall pot will be held back to offset costs incurred by the county, some of which will be doled out to cities, and commissioners also agreed to give the 12 chambers of commerce $15,000 each to help inform the public on the availability of the grant money and how to receive it.