Sarasota seeks faster action on COVID-19 relief
By WARREN RICHARDSON
SARASOTA — Moving swiftly to get federal pandemic relief to local people and businesses, while not putting the county at risk.
Those two ideals were on full display Thursday during a special meeting as Sarasota County commissioners grappled with demands to move quicker while avoiding potential future liability.
While commissioners were mindful of the legal advice they were receiving, they also heard the voices of local people — including many business people — who complained that the process to receive federal COVID-19 aid through the county was too slow and cumbersome.
Two weeks ago, the county initiated a local relief effort of grants to help people, businesses and nonprofits impacted by the pandemic using $500,000 of the initial $18.5 million in CARES Act funding the county the U.S. Treasury has made available.
With that first installment in hand, the county expects to receive another $57.1 million over the coming months.
“We’ve reached D-Day. We can’t wait any longer. You need to make some decisions and get this money out to the community,” said Christine Robinson, a former commissioner and now executive director of the Argus Foundation.
Commissioner Charles Hines echoed Robinson’s remarks, telling his fellow board members about a call from a law firm that complained the program’s application process was “too hard and not worth it.”
“I’ve had call after call that it’s not working yet,” Hines said.
Well aware of the complaints, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis had prepared adjustments to the application process to streamline it — mainly allowing applicants to attest to their monetary losses and supply documentation later and treating nonprofits like a business unless specifically prohibited by the Treasury Department or the state, a qualifier added by the attorneys.
Lewis also increased the amount of the grants for businesses from $20,000 to $50,000.
Lewis said he was seeking approval of these changes from commissioners, who unanimously gave it, since he felt it went beyond the authority originally bestowed upon him earlier.
Although not on the published agenda, commissioners also took up the continued requests from the Sarasota Arts Council and Visit Sarasota County that they be included in the county’s priorities for CARES Act funding.
With little discussion, they directed Lewis to work with the Arts Council, which represents the numerous cultural entities in the county, on funding and the findings of fact that could pass legal review.
The request from Visit Sarasota County gave Lewis some concern. He told commissioners it could be construed as a government activity being conducted by another entity and thus ineligible for funding.
Under the U.S. Treasury guidelines for the CARES Act funding, the county is liable for any ineligible appropriations and could be forced to reimburse the federal government for those funds.
But Lewis also recognized the contributions Visit Sarasota had made toward the county’s efforts to deal with the pandemic.
“They’ve been one of the first to assist the county,” Lewis said. “They’ve been with us every step of the way.”
The organization sought $850,000 to conduct “a specialized campaign that reaches our target audience of meeting planners and sports organizers” highlighting the safety measures in the county to attract their business in 2021 according to the group’s letter making the request. The organization has since modified its request to $455,000.
Although Commissioner Christian Ziegler expressed some reluctance, commissioners unanimously agreed to include Visit Sarasota for funding.