County considers how to spend $71 million in federal relief

The Marion County Commission is shown during meeting in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.
Editors Note: Rob Davis, general counsel with the Marion County Clerk of Court and Comptroller, clarified the status of funds Marion County has in reserve from a federal relief program. A previous version of this story included a different analysis.

Marion County Commissioners on Tuesday contemplated how to spend more than $71 million expected in COVID-19 related relief from the federal government.

In March, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, which included billions in direct aid to counties.

Jeannie Rickman, an assistant Marion County administrator, said the county recently received half of the $71 million and must submit a preliminary spending plan to the federal government by Aug. 31.

To that end, county staff suggested the commission consider a plan that would spend the bulk of the money, upwards of $49 million, on water and sewer infrastructure projects, followed by $12 million to replace the county’s lost revenue and another $10 million to assist local businesses and non-for-profit organization.

But commissioners preferred keeping dollar amounts out of the recommendation and instead directed county administration to bring back specific projects and their associated costs.

They did agree to keep the spending limited to the three categories suggested.

The money can only be spent on five categories:

  • To support public health expenditures.
  • To address negative economic impacts caused by the public health emergency.
  • To replace lost public sector revenue.
  • To provide premium pay for essential workers.
  • To invest in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.

Commissioner Kathy Bryant asked for better accounting of the county’s losses due to COVID-19.

Audrey Fowler, the county’s budget director, said she would detail the losses which came after county departments pulled money out of their invested reserves to make up for budget deficits. The lost revenue would include the money used to make up the deficit, plus lost interest.

Bryant asked if the county could use approximately $20 million remaining from the $63.7 million Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF), to help offset the losses.

Fowler said CRF, which was part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act signed by President Donald Trump last March, could not go toward revenue replacement.

However, a county spokesperson recently told the Gazette that the remaining funds under the CARES Act were already released for payroll reimbursement. What remains, according to the email, was now “community money” no longer subject to the CRF restrictions.

The county set aside the remaining $20 million for future vaccine and testing expenses.

On Wednesday, Rob Davis, general counsel with the Marion County Clerk of Court and Comptroller, clarified that the $20 million is no longer bound by the CRF restrictions.

County Administrator Mounir Bouyounes said he would bring back options to the commission for the $71 million but planned to focus heavily on water and sewer projects.

“If the business community or not-for-profits have special projects where there is a need, they need to put it in a plan and bring it back to us,” Bouyounes said.

Under the program, the county has until Dec. 31, 2024, to allocate the money and until Dec. 31, 2026, to complete all work and services.

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