With President Biden’s signing of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill on Thursday, cities and counties across the Tampa Bay area are now expecting to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. What local government officials don’t know yet is how exactly they can spend it.
They are slated to receive more funding than they did one year ago under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES, passed under then-President Trump. And this time, individual cities will be getting their own federal disbursements, rather than just the cuts divvied out by county governments.
While the American Rescue Plan states money cannot be used to finance new tax cuts or pay for pension obligations, officials are still waiting for official guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department on how they can spend this round of COVID aid.
Last year, local governments spent their millions on everything from rent and mortgage assistance for residents to grants for local businesses struggling from the impacts of the pandemic shutdowns.
“The good news is there’s a lot of funds there that really could make a difference for the majority of our citizens,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman said.
Pinellas County will receive $189 million from the COVID-19 relief act, according to a congressional summary from late February, up from the $170.1 million that came through the 2020 CARES Act. The county’s two largest cities will receive the highest payouts, with St. Petersburg expecting $46.6 million and Clearwater receiving $20.8 million — each allocation about nine times more than the cities received in CARES Act funding through Pinellas last year.
Hillsborough County is to receive $285 million from the COVID-19 relief act, while the city of Tampa will get $80 million. Plant City is scheduled to receive $16.7 million and Temple Terrace, $11.9 million. Last year, Hillsborough got $257 million in CARES Act funding, and passed $38.9 million to Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said Wednesday the city has a list of projects ready to make use of the federal funds, but that she will not release it publicly until the city receives the Treasury guidance.
“We’ve clearly been keeping track of revenue losses and locations that are in need,” the mayor said, saying that U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, deserved praise for helping to secure aid for cities with populations under 500,000 that were skipped in the first round of federal COVID relief.
Some Congressional Republicans pushed back against the federal bill because of the implications for how local governments would spend their portions. Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Gimenez said he worried some cities and counties would use their COVID relief funds to balance their budgets.
Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said he would like the city to recuperate costs from COVID expenses. But Hibbard said he doesn’t want relief dollars going to wish list spending, like capital projects that weren’t already in the pipeline before the pandemic.
“I’m more concerned about what I don’t want it spent on,” Hibbard said. “I don’t want it to be spent on some new capital project that is going to require more (operations and maintenance). I hope there are strings attached, that it’s not just a windfall for cities.”
Clearwater will spend its $1.9 million share of last year’s relief aid allocated by Pinellas County on covering costs the city incurred, like employee sick time, protective equipment, facility improvements for sanitation, COVID testing and telework capabilities for employees, according to finance director Jay Ravins.
Hillsborough County’s new relief money is expected to be delivered in two installments, with half coming this year and the rest no earlier than 12 months after the initial payment, said Liana Lopez, the county’s chief communications administrator.
For this year’s pot of $285 million, Hillsborough Commission Chair Pat Kemp suggested social services will remain a top focus including housing and food-delivery programs.
“When everything’s lifted and we start returning to normal, I think we’re going to be hit with a lot of needs,” Kemp said.
The relief bill includes separate allocations for transit, one of Kemp’s personal priorities.
“It’s just very important, I think, to get the community and Hillsborough County made whole,” said Kemp.
Overman said she was concerned about infrastructure for jobs, particularly in underserved areas. She also said expanded internet access, which is a use authorized by the law, should be prioritized.
“COVID has given us some real eye-opening data on that issue as it pertains to access to internet,” said Overman. “In rural and urban areas, where access is limited, that has a broad, large-scale impact on teachers, on kids, on families, and on parents working at home.”
Commissioner Mariella Smith and others cast an eye toward small businesses.
“We have so many small businesses, restaurants and the arts venues — a wide spectrum of pieces of our community and our culture and our economy — that have suffered because of COVID. Whatever we can do to bring them back as quickly as possible would be my general thought,” Smith said.
Plant City Manager Bill McDaniel said the city is continuing to evaluate potential uses of the money. The city has lost $1.3 million in revenue to date due to the pandemic, the largest portion of which he said is lost sales tax receipts.
Pasco County’s estimated coronavirus relief would be $107.4 million, but budget director Robert Goehrig told commissioners on Tuesday that he will wait for federal guidance.
New Port Richey staff has already been discussing potential uses for its $7 million allocation, according to city manager Debbie Manns. Some ideas include direct help to businesses and also help for residents who have not been able to pay their water bills.
“Oh, this is great news,” Manns said. “It makes me want to convene a meeting of our department heads to start talking about what we can do.”
On the flip side is the city of Temple Terrace. It has no spending plans yet, said spokeswoman Laurie Hayes, because city officials didn’t know more aid was coming.