Brevard County commissioners divvied up much of what remains of the $105 million in CARES Act money the county received from the federal government for coronavirus aid, in a process one commissioner said was turning into a circus.
Before Thursday, about $51.1 million of that money had been unobligated.
Among the more controversial parts of the plan approved at a County Commission workshop Thursday was having each of the five commissioners be responsible for unilaterally designating up to $5 million apiece for entities and programs that would qualify for Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act money.
Brevard County Clerk of Courts Scott Ellis told commissioners he thought that was illegal, and that he would consider filing a lawsuit to halt the plan from going forward. He said it amounted to a “slush fund,” because the allocations would not have to be approved by a majority of the commission.
Nevertheless, commissioners approved that part of the plan, 3-2. Chairman Brian Lober, Vice Chair Rita Pritchett and Commission Curt Smith voted in favor of the proposal. Commissioners Kristine Isnardi and John Tobia voted against it.
Lober said the county’s legal team felt the $5 million-per-commissioner plan would hold up in court.
Isnardi and Tobia both said they would designate their $5 million to a newly created CARES Act public safety fund that could be used for countywide emergency medical services transport; fire EMS, medics and dispatch expenses; and countywide Brevard County Sheriff’s Office jail and other corrections-related expenses.
Pritchett said she would use her $5 million share to reimburse Parrish Medical Center for coronavirus-related expenses. Most of Parrish’s business comes from within her north Brevard commission district.
Pritchett’s allocation to Parrish would reverse a vote by the full County Commission earlier in the meeting, when they rejected by a 3-2 vote a $5 million allocation to Parrish. Pritchett and Lober voted in favor.
Lober and Smith said they have not decided what to do with their $5 million CARES Act allocations.
But Lober warned at the meeting that he would not be likely to support giving some of the money to any entities that lobby him for the money.
With the Dec. 30 federal deadline approaching for putting the CARES Act money to use, commissioners in rapid-fire succession approved a range of allocations for the money.
“This is like a circus,” Isnardi said at one point, as commissioners sought to get various allocations they supported approved by the full commission.
Public safety focus
Public safety was a big focus of Thursday’s workshop.
County Manager Frank Abbate said among the previously obligated CARES Act money was $8.84 million for the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office that the agency contended was for various expenses tied to the coronavirus.
These expenses primary related to the Brevard County Jail and court operations, as well as for equipment and supplies the BCSO felt was needed because of COVID-19.
Abbate said these $8.84 million worth of expenses were on the “first tier” of Brevard County Sheriff’s Office expenses that a consulting firm the county hired to review proposed CARES Act allocations felt were the most appropriate for reimbursement through the CARES Act.
At Abbate’s request, the BCSO also previously had submitted a list of other expenses totaling $37.17 million that potentially could qualify for CARES Act funding.
Abbate said the BCSO did not specifically request reimbursements.
Items on that list could be considered as part of the money drawn from the public safety fund in the future, along with Brevard County Fire Rescue expenses, if the county and its consultant deem those as expenses qualified for reimbursement through the CARES Act.
On Thursday, commissioners unanimously approved $11.14 million in reimbursements for expenses for Brevard County Fire Rescue countrywide emergency medical services transport costs, adding to $1.25 million in BCFR costs that already have been obligated.
Among other allocations commissioners approved — most by unanimous votes — during the CARES Act workshop on Thursday were:
Individual assistance: Commissioners added $2.2 million to a previously approved $8.4 million for individual assistance and food programs. The individual assistance can help residents affected financially by COVID-19 with mortgage and rent bills, as well as utility and security deposits. Commissioners also increased the maximum any recipient could receive to $12,500, up from $7,200.
Business assistance: Commissioners added $1.5 million to a previously approved $10 million for assistance to small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Businesses and nonprofits impacted by COVID-19 can apply for up to $10,000 apiece.
Brevard Public Schools: A $4 million allocation to the school district for personal protective equipment, technology-related items and other supplies was approved.
But commissioners rejected a request by Superintendent Mark Mullins for CARES Act money to pay for $3.57 million worth of Apple iPads and laptop computers for students who are doing distance learning because of COVID-19.
Commissioners said the district could pay for those expenses through revenue generated by a half-percent sales tax that voters on Tuesday extended for another six years for technology, school security and infrastructure capital expenses. That tax is projected to raise $240 million during the next six years.
Animal shelters: Commissioners allocated up to $100,000 apiece for the Brevard Humane Society and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Brevard.
The rationale was that those nonprofit organizations’ animal shelters help reduce the burden on the county’s animal shelter run by BCSO for the housing of dogs and cats.
Under the plan, the agencies could be considered for additional CARES Act money they might qualify for, during a follow-up discussion at the commission’s Dec. 22 meeting.
Brevard Zoo: Commissioners voted 3-2 to provide $500,000 in CARES Act money for the Brevard Zoo in Viera, with the potential for the zoo to come back Dec. 22 to seek more money later.
Isnardi, Lober and Smith were in the majority on that vote.
Brevard Zoo Director Keith Winsten had sought a $1.3 million allocation to help offset $2.4 million in reduced income caused by the pandemic, related to a two-month closure of the zoo, reduced attendance since then, and the halt to renting out zoo facilities for various types of events.
But commissioners had rejected a $1.3 million allocation in a 3-2 vote, with only Isnardi and Smith supporting the higher amount.
Urgent-care clinics: Commissioners approved $5,000 apiece in CARES Act money for the urgent-care clinics the county. There are as many as 26 such facilities.
Isnardi had to abstain on that vote because she is a nurse practitioner with Health First Medical Group, and a different affiliate of Health First operates some urgent-care clinics that would receive grants.
Social service programs: Allocations approved included $500,000 for mental health programs, including Circles of Care; $74,400 for Aging Matters, including its Meals on Wheels program; and $29,662 for the Brevard Homeless Coalition and other programs to aid the homeless.
Port, Health First left out
Major entities left out of getting additional CARES Act funds for now include Health First and Port Canaveral.
A proposal to provide $5 million to Health First failed in a 2-2 vote, with Pritchett and Smith in favor. Lober and Tobia were opposed. Isnardi had to abstain.
Both Health First and Parrish previously were approved for reimbursements related to COVID-19 testing, and the County Commission’s action Thursday will not affect those allocations.
Lober had proposed a $7.5 million to $12.5 million allocation for Port Canaveral to partially offset the port’s lost revenue from its cruise business that has been shut down since March.
“They are hemorrhaging money left and right,” Lober said.
Lober said CARES Act money could help the port avoid having to reinstitute a tax on residents of the port district in the northern half of the county or reduce the impact of a tax if it is implemented.
But he did not seek to bring that proposal to a vote, after a majority of the commission indicated they would not support the proposal on Thursday.
Tobia cited Port Canaveral Chief Executive Officer John Murray’s salary of $374,920 — which Tobia felt was excessive — as a reason not to support the proposal. Tobia also cited the port’s money-losing, seven-story Exploration Tower that cost $23 million to build and opened in 2013.
“It’s ridiculous that we would hand dollar one” to the port, Tobia said.
“I think we’re going down a rabbit hole here,” Isnardi said.
Isnardi said, if the port got CARES Act money from the county, she feared that every city and town in Brevard would come to the commission, seeking more money to make up for lost revenue.
Most of Brevard’s cities and towns already have been obligated a total of $4.93 million from the county’s CARES Act money for such things as personal protective equipment, social distancing measures, public safety expenses and public employee reassignment.
Dave Berman is government editor at FLORIDA TODAY.