BoCC Hears COVID-19 Impacts
The Board of Lee County Commissioners (BoCC) heard their initial report from County Staff concerning $135 million it received through the Federal Government’s “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, & Economic Security (CARES) Act” passed by the United States Congress and signed by President Donald Trump on March 27.
Assistant Lee County Manager Glen Salyer provided the BoCC a CARES Act overview. “This is a $2.2 trillion package, with $150 billion specifically allocated to State and Local governments. If your county has over 500,000 residents, like Lee County, you receive a direct allocation, with smaller jurisdictions carving out their money from the statewide pool. Lee County received $134.5 million that we can use on COVID-19 issues by the end of this calendar year, with few instructions. Our notice arrived with just four pages of bullet points, without even having the Treasury Department on the letterhead, so that alone is pretty strange! The Inspector General will monitor expenditures and there will be a future audit, with any funds left over at the end of the year returned to the Federal Government. We can use these dollars for public health expenses, hardware and software support for employees to work at home, and for small business support programs including mortgage, rent and utility payments.”
Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais echoed that “we received this $135 million last week, just eight days after we inquired, and in fact it came as a direct deposit to my personal bank account, though I immediately transferred it to the County! The Treasury Department provided little guidance, so I do have a couple of recommendations.”
Before Desjarlais could continue, however, Commissioner Frank Mann questioned whether Lee County should keep the CARES Act funds. “This $2.2 trillion increases our national debt that our great-grandchildren will need to pay off. We did not ask for this, and for those of us who think of ourselves as conservatives, it is important to note that. We are a well-run county with substantial reserves and are not in a panic mode, and we do not need this to get through the next week, month or year, so I ask that we be cautious with this as we move forward. I have a quote from Calvin Coolidge on my desk that reads: ‘Nothing is easier to spend than the public’s money, as it does not appear to belong to anybody!’ If President Trump had called me to say the Federal Government was sending us $135 million, I would have said, ‘why don’t you keep it and if we need it, we will get back to you.’ I needed to get that off my chest!”
Desjarlais recommended that Lee County use the CARES Act moneys “to find ways to help our local businesses to the extent we can for their recovery. We can allocate it through the established practices from the Human Services program, to do so quickly, and I can provide more details next week. The other category that makes sense today is to purchase Personal Protective Equipment through our Department of Emergency Management, as it is better for us to do so rather than many individual local businesses, and will have that plan for you next week, so I request the BoCC hold a Special Meeting for Tuesday, May 12, at 9:30 a.m.” The BoCC unanimously passed that request.
BoCC Chair Brian Hamman noted, “Healthy people through no fault of their own can no longer provide for their family, or pay their rent, mortgage or utility bills. While I too look forward to giving a big chunk of this money back, in the interim, we must help those people so I look forward to a great conversation.”
Airport & LeeTran
In separate actions, the BoCC approved CARES Act funds to the Southwest Florida International Airport for $36.6 million and to Lee Tran for $19 million.
Interim Airport Executive Director Ben Siegel explained, “COVID-19 is devastating to our stakeholders and partners, with business down 95%. We closed Concourse C, with all remaining traffic through Concourses B and D. April flights are down 71% and passengers 93% over the previous year. In peak season, we have 51 nonstop destinations and currently that is 19, with no service to Canada and Germany and we lost a tremendous amount to New York and New Jersey, so it is surreal to say the least! Last year, we had 10 million passengers but this year hope to hit 6.7 million, and those are similar numbers to 2004, before the new terminal, so that is pretty dramatic. We are just beginning work on the 2021 budget and expect that to be very conservative. While the CARES Act did allocate the airline industry $11 billion, American airlines will lose $23 billion; worldwide, the industry projects to be down 4.6 billion passengers and $100 billion in revenue, so those are huge numbers and we feel it too. It could take one to three years to totally recover.” Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass opined, “Our seasonal residents will return in October and we will be back to normal,” with the BoCC unanimously accepting the $36.6 million CARES Act allocation.
Lee Tran Executive Director Robert Codie stated that his agency will use the $19 million CARES Act funding to “take care for COVID-19 precautions, such as safety barriers for our drivers, touchless fare devices for our buses and other measures during the long-term, as the COVID-19 continues…the Federal Government devoted $25 billion to Public Transportation, with $19 million so far to Lee County, and we expect another $875,000 in the near future.” The BoCC unanimously accepted the allocation.
In other matters, the BoCC began their meeting by presenting Lee Health and the Lee County Florida Department of Health nurses a Proclamation recognizing “National Nurses Week” from May 6 to 12; and ended their 90-minute session by unanimously extending both the State of Local Emergency and the Local Burn Ban for an additional week.