Florida to begin funneling federal COVID-19 funds to smaller counties

Every Northeast Florida county outside of Jacksonville will receive funds

Healthcare workers organize an area at a newly opened drive-through COVID-19 testing site at the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair & Exposition center, Wednesday, April 8, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (Wilfredo Lee, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – More than two months after some of Florida’s largest cities and counties received $100 million or more in federal funding to offset costs of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic while tax revenues were falling because of stay-at-home orders, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Wednesday that the state will start to release nearly $1.3 billion in federal funds to cash-strapped counties now struggling amid the resulting recession.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury in March dispersed $2.47 billion directly to 12 Florida counties with populations greater than 500,000 -- Duval, Broward, Brevard, Broward, Hillsborough, Lee, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Orange and Volusia -- as part of a stimulus law known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

The state also received $1.275 billion for other local governments. County and city officials for weeks have urged DeSantis to release the money. The local officials want to use the funds to jumpstart flagging economies socked by massive shutdowns aimed at preventing the spread of the virus.

Those “smaller” counties include Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Clay, Columbia, Flagler, Nassau, Putnam, St. Johns and Union. According to the proposed distribution, the counties will receive anywhere from $932,325 to $16 million.

“I’m proud that today, we are able to provide funding back to these counties, so that they can really begin their recovery from this virus. We thank President Trump and our federal partners for providing this relief to Florida,” DeSantis said in a statement.

Under the “phased approach” announced by the governor Wednesday, the Florida Division of Emergency Management will provide “an initial disbursement” of 25 percent of each county’s allocation. Counties also will be responsible for steering money to cities.

Counties recently increased the pressure on DeSantis to distribute the money.

“The rural areas of Florida have been waiting for over two months to begin addressing the economic needs faced by their local businesses. We are pleased that the funding is being released,” lobbyist Chris Doolin, who represents the Small County Coalition, told The News Service.

To receive the money, counties will have to sign funding agreements with the emergency-management agency promising to use the funds on “eligible expenditures as defined by the CARES Act” and related guidance by the Treasury Department, according to a news release from the governor’s office.

Counties also will have to agree to repay the state any portion of the money “that is unused, or is not utilized in accordance with the CARES Act stipulations" and will have to submit quarterly reports to the Division of Emergency Management detailing how the money was spent, along with projections of eligible expenditures.

Counties can also submit requests to the agency “for additional funds in excess of their 25 percent initial disbursement on a reimbursement basis” for eligible expenditures.

“All counties, including counties that already received direct payment from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, should provide funds to municipalities located within their jurisdiction on a reimbursement basis for expenditures eligible under the CARES Act and related guidance,” the news release said.

In a prepared statement issued following DeSantis' announcement, the Florida League of Cities said it wanted to draw attention to the governor's "stated intent that cities receive the funding they need." The cities said they wanted to get the money directly, instead of through counties, "to eliminate an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy."

Guidelines issued by the Treasury Department on April 22 also said the money could be used for “second-order effects” of the pandemic, “such as by providing economic support to those suffering from employment or business interruptions due to COVID-19-related business closures.”