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Hillsborough expands aid to needy with $15 million in rapid-recovery dollars

Metropolitan Ministries to get $4 million for homeless prevention

TAMPA — Hillsborough County will use $15 million in federal aid to expand social services and homeless prevention efforts for people affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The rapid-response funding, part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES), will broaden existing programs providing rent, mortgage and utility payments and other assistance to new clients. The county said requests for help have more than doubled since the beginning of the pandemic.

From April 1-13, the county received 1,268 requests for utility bill assistance, 529 requests for help with rent or mortgage payments and calls from 291 people asking for food.

The money is part of the $256 million in CARES Act funding the county expects to receive from the federal government. Potential economic recovery efforts include providing businesses with capital to make safety modifications as they reopen, job-creation incentives and training and job placement assistance for residents.

The Hillsborough County Commission will decide exactly how that money will be spent. The county previously convened an economic recovery task force which is expected to make recommendations within 30 days. The cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City also will provide input.

One group that shouldn’t be making decisions about the economic recovery is the county’s emergency policy group, said Sheriff Chad Chronister.

“This group has and continues to save lives. But decisions going forward about economic recovery, long-term health planning and what our new normal looks like are not emergency policies,” he said. “The group shouldn’t have any authority about those choices,”

County Administrator Mike Merrill, who had just given the emergency policy group an update Monday on the federal stimulus dollars headed to Hillsborough, confirmed that it would be the county commission, not the emergency policy group, that decides where to spend the money.

The new federal dollars will augment the $8 million the county typically spends annually in helping the needy. The county is cross-training its own library staff as eligibility specialists and using non-profit agencies to handle the new cases. The county said it expects to be able to assist more than double its normal caseload of about 1,000 families weekly.

Additionally, approximately $4 million in rapid-response funds will go to Metropolitan Ministries to bolster help for families facing potential homelessness.

All calls will go to the county social service call center where the staff will pre-qualify applicants for residency and financial requirements. The county, in turn, will send 125 pre-qualified households each week to Metropolitan Ministries to process payments to landlords.

The agency said it is helping 1,800 families, a caseload that is six times higher than normal. Three-quarters of the families seeking help from Metropolitan Ministries haven’t done so in the past, said Justine Burke, the agency’s vice president of marketing.

The funding, available to people for two months’ rent or mortgage payments and one month of utility costs, is expected to last through July.

People can begin calling the county’s social service center to pre-qualify beginning Monday, April 27. The telephone number is 813-274-3710. For information, see the county’s web page at https://www.hillsboroughcounty.org/en/residents/public-safety/emergency-management/stay-safe/getting-help.

Related: Tampa Mayor Jane Castor unveils emergency relief fund

In the city of Tampa, Mayor Jane Castor said the new relief fund, One Tampa, received 10,000 telephone calls after the service went live at noon Friday, the first day of operation.

The fund, to aid both small businesses and residents, has a goal of reaching $8 million using federal and local dollars and private donations. She said the city expects to aid 800 small businesses in low-income or city redevelopment areas.

Castor made “a shameless plea” at Monday’s policy group meeting to county officials to funnel some of the federal money to the One Tampa fund, which she said was overwhelmed with calls for help.

""I don’t know if it’s positive or very sad that we went live at noon on Friday and we had approximately 10,000 calls," Castor said.

The policy group also had the first tentative discussion of how to proceed in eventually reopening the county, a path several residents called for during public comment.

Plant City Mayor Rick Lott said he looked forward to more discussion on that front at Thursday’s meeting.

“So we can start talking about the process about opening our economy back up while being safe at the same time,” Lott said.

Commissioner Les Miller said the group should proceed cautiously. Public Health officials reported Monday that only about 1 percent of the county’s 1.4 million residents had been tested for the virus.

“If we’re talking about opening up, we’ve got to have more people tested,” Miller said.

County Commissioner Sandy Murman said the policy group isn’t in charge of reopening the county: Gov. Ron DeSantis is.

Murman’s stance was largely confirmed by County Attorney Christine Beck, although Beck said the governor’s order does have some leeway on things like reopening beaches.

Murman noted that the county has very limited beachfront.

“It’s still going to be up to the governor. No matter what,” Murman said.

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