County weighs how to distribute millions in coronavirus relief aid

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Posted July 13, 2020 | By Bill Thompson
Deputy Editor

Marion County has received $15.9 million in federal funding to offset the economic devastation caused by COVID-19.

The funding, available under the CARES Act, is a quarter of the $63.9 million the county has been allotted.

Now, the issue is how to divvy it up.

Assistant County Administrator Jeannie Rickman told the County Commission last week that a few potential recipients have come forward.

Sheriff Billy Woods seeks $1 million to help pay for costs related to “unforeseen expenses” at the county jail tied to Covid-19.

According to Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Paul Bloom, 44 inmates and 12 jail staff have tested positive as of last Tuesday.

Woods, in an email to the county, noted that the combination of opening isolation pods to create space for infected inmates and quarantining staff is straining his overtime budget.

The sheriff noted by law he is responsible for expenditures that exceed the budget approved by the County Commission. If that happens, he indicated he would seek the board’s approval for more money.

Yet the CARES Act may help prevent that.

“This additional expenditure for this fiscal year is directly related to the Covid-19 and will be used solely for these expenditures,” Woods wrote. “If there is any unused portion of the requested $1,000,000 we would ask for the year end monies to be returned so that it could be used to offset the predicted costs going into the new fiscal year.”

The board did not object.

Additionally, the cities of Belleview and Dunnellon also seek CARES money.

Belleview wants $125,000, while Dunnellon seeks $24,266. The reasons behind the requests were not specified. But payments must cover “necessary” coronavirus-related costs that were not in the agency’s formal budget as of March 27, and were incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30.

In an email Wednesday, Rickman said staff is developing a method for other eligible agencies, community groups and businesses to request funding.

The County Commission also is considering other uses for CARES funding.

For example, Commissioner Michelle Stone on Tuesday suggested using the money to purchase rapid-testing machines for the coronavirus that can turn around results in hours instead of days.

Those could be utilized for hospital staff, long-term care facility workers and first-responders.

Or, she added, using the money to secure housing for people who have tested positive, if necessary.

“Let’s get super serious about isolating and getting rapid testing done and getting people out of circulation,” Stone said.

The board also weighed whether to cover bills for water utility customers.

Environmental Services Director Jody Kirkman said the delinquency rate has climbed from 4.9 percent to 5.8 percent – or 1,982 total customers — since coronavirus spread throughout Marion County. Those customers are primarily in Marion Oaks, Stonecrest, Oak Run and Silver Springs Shores. Kirkman said delinquent customers owe $247.50 on average.

It’s unclear how many of those customers are in arrears directly because of COVID-19.

County Administrator Mounir Bouyounes said the test for eligibility is demonstrating that a customer did in fact suffer an economic hardship related to COVID-19 – otherwise, the county must return anything that is not spent.

To qualify, customers must certify they couldn’t pay their bill because of the virus.

“The biggest point is that we wouldn’t be offering this assistance to make us whole,” commission Chairwoman Kathy Bryant noted. “We would be offering this assistance because it needs to be offered to the community.”

“It’s all about helping the people,” Stone concurred.

The county is considering partnering with a third party to vet the applications to ensure they are pandemic-related.

For those who would not qualify for the relief program, the county will encourage them to sign up for the utility’s payment plan by Aug. 16, or risk having their water service cut off.