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Lee County begins assistance program

By Staff | May 27, 2020

Folks who need help paying the rent or a utility bill and who earn under $55,000 or whose small business has suffered due to the economic fallout from the state’s response to the COVID-19 are all eligible for a $57.5 million program approved this week by the Lee County Board of County Commissioners as part of the CARES Act.

The program, which went into effect Tuesday, is part of $134 million the county has received as part of the CARES Act approved by Congress to help local and state governments. The county has received a total of $194 million through the CARES Act. Applications can be made at www.leeflcares.com .

The initial proposal presented by Assistant County Manager Glen Sayer at last week’s Commission meeting would have allocated $50 million to start with. Lee County Commissioner Ray Sandelli added $7.5 million to the initial proposal, saying he wanted to frontload the spending to get the funds out quicker.

“A lot of people have been hurting for quite a while now,” he said.

Sandelli also added $3 million to assist local food banks.

Board Chairman Brian Hamman said “these programs are one-time in nature. They are not meant to be recurring.”

Sayer said a second wave of funds that will be arriving out of the $134 million total the county is expecting. County Manager Roger Desjarlais said the balance of the $134 million will be held in reserve and can be allocated in the future. The county allocated $60 million previously – mainly for the Lee County Port Authority and LeeTran, as well as human services and public safety.

The county will set aside $22 million into a personal assistance program for individuals and families to pay rent, mortgage and utility expenses if they earn $55,000 or less. A maximum of $2,000 would be paid on behalf of those households directly to the vendors (utility companies, banks, landlords).

“It doesn’t really matter what you made last year, it depends on your current situation. If you have been impacted by the COVID-19 event to such an extent that your income has fallen below those levels, you would qualify,” Sayer said.

Sayer said there will be an application online and through a mobile device. There also will be a paper application. A call-center will be set up to assist applicants.

Commissioner Frank Mann expressed concern that the information may not get out to all who need the help. He also said he felt the process was confusing in regards to whether the applicants will have to make the application or if a landlord or mortgage company will also need to.

“It seems cumbersome,” he said.

“We’re doing a wonderful thing here but how does the world know? How do these people who could be the beneficiaries know?”

Mann asked whether the applicant would need to notify the utility company or landlord to register with the county to receive payment.

Sayer said the individual applies for the benefit.

“The vendor registers with the county and we make payment directly to them,” he said. This is the process the county already uses for its mortgage, rent and utilities program.

Sayer said the county has notified local utility companies to register as vendors with the county so they can receive the funds. The county would work with vendors to address late fees and past due costs for bills following a question from Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass.

Mann said “these are some do-good efforts” but wants to be sure that those in need of help are educated enough to ensure they receive the assistance.

Sayer said there will be advertising to let people know about the program. Currently, the county allows up to four weeks to pay utility companies. Nearly 50 people will be staffed at the new call center just for this program with the expectation that the county would move the money out much quicker. Sayer and Desjarlais said more than 100 county employees will be assisting in the administration of all the programs.

n Business relaunch program

The Commission has allocated $25 million for business relaunch. That includes $5,000 financial assistance grants to small businesses with 25 employees or fewer which were closed by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Executive Order or whose operations were limited, such as restaurants. The funds will go to operating expenses, Sayer said.

n Childcare support

The Commission allocated $4.5 million for vouchers to offset childcare expenses including summer camp expenses, along with funds to go child care and camp facilities to purchase personal protective equipment and deep-cleaning services.

n PPE supply

In an attempt to supply small businesses with personal protective equipment, the county will allocate $3 million to the purchasing of products.

“We have a lot more buying power than a small company,” Sayer said.

The county will focus on businesses that are in “high-intensity contact” industries. The county will provide masks, sanitizers, disinfectants and gloves.

“This is a volatile market,” he said.

There will be an online application system. A list of qualifying industries can be found on the county’s website.