TAMPA — It was a consensus Friday among Hillsborough leaders: federal money helped stave off disaster during the pandemic.
The leaders, including Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, Hillsborough County Administrator Bonnie Wise and Hillsborough School District Superintendent Addison Davis, gathered for a virtual discussion hosted by the Tampa Tiger Bay Club on how they have spent their millions in coronavirus relief dollars — and how they plan to spend the next batch of federal money.
All agreed the pandemic had changed local government forever.
Plant City Mayor Rick Lott and Temple Terrace Mayor Andy Ross detailed how federal money helped make their city buildings safer and allow them to purchase technology to connect a scattered workforce.
And Castor said her administration is studying whether some city jobs like customer service might be better performed at home.
But the bulk of city workers will return June 1, Castor said. The sudden shift to remote working for the city, she added, has had its ups and downs.
And five officials lamented how quickly their entities had to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars that have flowed into Florida’s fourth-largest county in the last twelve months.
Wise, who administered the disbursement of $256.8 million, said it was stressful. Senior bureaucrats like her, she said, are planners, not fly-by-your-pants spenders.
The second round of federal relief for counties and cities, approved by Congress earlier this month, is still being ironed out, Wise said. The county and Tampa, which both qualify for the $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan recently signed by President Joe Biden, are awaiting final guidance for how to spend the money from the U.S. Treasury Department.
Wise said the county hopes to replenish some of the estimated $70 million in sales, tourism and gas taxes lost during the pandemic with the money.
Castor noted Tampa lost important revenue hubs in its city-owned Convention Center. Parking revenue also plummeted as downtown emptied.
The federal aid helped and she has plenty of ideas of where it can be put to good use in Tampa. Those ideas will remain under wraps until more federal guidance comes out, she has said.
But the mayor said she didn’t think her city would become dependent on federal largesse in the future.
“The majority of (the federal money) was spent for relief programs that we hope won’t be needed (again),” Castor said.
One-time capital projects might be a possibility for the county share of the second round, Wise said, noting the federal authorities have okayed investments in water, sewer and broadband internet under the legislation and existing rules.
Assistance to landlords will also be in the works. Wise urged landlords who wanted to seek relief for lost rents to monitor the county’s website for a new $40 million program.
Wise noted that the county paid rents directly to tenants last year in a rush to help meet the tremendous need in the community. But, she said, it wasn’t clear if all those tenants paid their landlords after receiving the federal aid.