Thanks to the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Donald Trump, Volusia County is getting a big cache of cash to meet the demands of the coronavirus emergency.
The county government will receive $96.5 million to cover its extra costs of dealing with the pandemic and its ripple effects.
“That money has strings attached to it,” County Chief Financial Officer Ryan Ossowski said, noting the county must comply with regulations set by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Volusia County is one of 12 Florida counties that qualified for the special appropriation because its population exceeds 500,000, as provided in the CARES Act. CARES is an acronym for Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security.
“Unlike FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency], we receive these funds upfront,” Ossowski added.
The CARES Act money is to be used for such outlays as overtime pay for county personnel engaged in work related to the emergency; screening and testing people, including county workers, for the deadly disease; disinfecting county buildings and facilities; arranging for county employees to “telework” from home; and modifying offices and areas to separate and shield county employees who deal directly with the public, such as setting up plexiglass barriers similar to those at supermarket checkout counters.
The expenses must be incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30, Ossowski said.
In addition, the county may provide food aid and housing assistance — including rent payments — and grants to businesses making new health and safety improvements as they reopen.
The CARES funds, however, may not be used for “revenue replacement” in the county’s annual budget. Shortfalls in the collections of sales taxes, property taxes and gasoline taxes, for examples, may not be offset by the federal stimulus payments.
As the county government and private businesses gradually reopen and recover from the pandemic-related shutdown, County Manager George Recktenwald advised the County Council to put some of its CARES dollars in reserve.
“I would recommend we hold some back to see how the needs develop,” he said. “We want to make sure we are going in the right direction.”
Meanwhile, county officials have christened the effort to help local governments and closed businesses reopen with new standards on social distancing and reduced capacities with the name Relaunch Volusia.
“As the number of new coronavirus cases in Florida and locally continues to decline, Volusia County is readying a plan to reopen county services and facilities that were scaled back to mitigate the spread of the virus,” county spokesman Gary Davidson said.
Davidson said the full plan for reopening the county is being finalized and is expected to be a primary topic of conversation at next week’s County Council meeting.
Some steps have already been taken, like a very gradual reopening of the county’s beaches.
“Over the past weekend, the county opened up parking spaces on county rights-of-way near the beach and also opened three beach vehicle ramps for use by handicapped persons,” Davidson said. “All other beach ramps remain closed at this time to vehicles to prevent large gatherings on the beach.”
Some 795 vehicles used the three ramps over the weekend. The next step, according to the county, is to prepare the beach for opening with a larger but still limited volume of vehicles, separated 25 feet from each other.
“To prepare for re-entry of vehicles onto the beach, utility posts will be placed in the sand between the existing conservation poles to mark the 25-foot separation for parking,” Davidson said.