(The Center Square) – With a deadlocked lame duck Congress unlikely to adopt a second federal pandemic assistance package this year, calls continue for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to allocate about $700 million in aid for municipalities that has idled in state coffers for more than six months.
Eight of Florida’s 13 Congressional Democrats last week appealed in a joint letter to the governor to release what remains from $1.27 billion in Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) monies the state received in March from Congress to distribute to municipalities in 55 small to mid-sized counties.
“CRF funding was meant to be a vital lifeline for maintaining uninterrupted operation of local government and services during this pandemic,” said the letter, signed by U.S. Reps Darren Soto, Alcee Hastings, Kathy Castor, Charlie Crist, Val Demings, Ted Deutch, Stephanie Murphy and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
The Small County Coalition of Florida (SCCF), Florida Association of Counties (FAC) and Florida League of Cities (FLC), among others, have also called on DeSantis for months to release the CRF money, which must be spent by Dec. 31 or be returned to the U.S. Treasury.
In March, Congress approved the $150 billion CRF for state and local government assistance as part of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Florida received $8.3 billion in CARES Act money with $2.473 million in CRF money allocated directly to the state’s 12 largest counties.
Of the remaining $5.8 billion the state receives, $1.27 billion in CRF money was earmarked for Florida’s 55 small/mid-sized counties.
Only 45 percent of the $1.27 billion in CRF money – $575 million – has been allocated with the remaining $700 million being dispersed through a Sept. 4 DeSantis executive order that requires counties to submit documents for approval to Florida’s Department of Emergency Management (DEM) on how they’ve spent and plan to spend relief money.
Counties and cities submitted those plans to the DEM weeks ago and await responses from the Governor’s Office, Congressional delegates said in their letter noting, for instance, Osceola County is awaiting about $36 million of the $65 million it was allocated in CRF money.
“Local governments must pay for incurred and mounting COVID-19 related expenditures, as well as establish programs to distribute CARES Act money to businesses and nonprofits in their municipal boundaries,” the eight U.S. representatives wrote. “Accordingly, we ask that you consider immediately releasing all remaining CRF resources to all Florida counties, cities, towns.”
After months of criticism from Democrats and some Republicans about the lack of transparency in how DeSantis, under an emergency order that does not expire until Jan. 3, has been spending CARES Act money and dispersing CRF allocations, reports filed by the Governor’s Office with the U.S. Treasury show how he has spent $4.6 billion in federal pandemic relief.
Most of the federal pandemic assistance has been funneled into operating state-run community-based testing sites, purchasing adequate personal protection equipment (PPE) for health care workers and providing housing assistance.
According to the Governor’s Office, $750 million was spent on payroll for public health and safety employees, including Department of Health (DOH), to man state-run coronavirus testing sites and for corrections officers.
Nearly $2.4 billion has been allocated to the four education-related CARES Act categories:
- Governor’s Fund: $173.59 million
- Department of Education (DOE): $770.25 million; local school boards received 90 percent, $693.2 million.
- Higher Education Fund: $874 million
- Child Care Fund: $223.6 million.