Federal money to help Sarasota County recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic comes with a broad range of possibilities, by design.
But at least $34 million of $84.2 million heading to the county from the American Rescue Plan Act likely won’t end up going where originally proposed by county staffers, based on decisions made by County Commissioners at a meeting this week.
County staff on Dec. 7 delivered a breakdown of proposals on how to spend the federal windfall in a list that included affordable housing projects, homelessness prevention and management, health care costs, lost revenue and water quality.
The biggest outlay, $31 million for public sewer system access to 1,340 Phillippi Creek area private septic system users, was deleted from the proposal. So was $3 million for renovations to a county-run Homeless Outreach Team facility in the south end of Sarasota County.
Commissioners directed County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and his staff to return in January with a reconfigured list of proposals, potentially moving newly available money around for programs or projects that remain.
The projects still on the list include:
- $12.5 million in funding support for Sarasota County fire-rescue
- $12.75 million in recovery of county government COVID-19 response expenses
- $5 million for mental health project
- $5 million to help the county cover self-insurance expenses related to COVID-19
- $5 million for ventilation and air quality improvements in the county’s criminal justice center, the judicial center and the county jail in Sarasota
- $5 million for affordable housing, possibly leveraging other available federal dollars
- $4 million for Knights Trail utility improvements
- $1 million in administrative expenses
Steve Hyatt, the county’s project manager for ARPA money distribution, said the county used data from several sources, including a monthlong survey of residents and business owners in Sarasota County in setting priorities on spending the county’s allocation.
Affordable housing was the most often mentioned issue by survey respondents who were asked to choose their top three concerns from a list of 12. Of 727 people who took the survey, 453 ranked affordable housing in their top three. Surveys were available online, along with paper formats at libraries, county offices and parks.
Homeless support, water quality, mental health and climate resiliency were the remainder of the top five. Other issues farther down the list: COVID-19 mitigation and vaccinations; public safety, educational disparities, workforce development, broadband investment, air quality and energy efficiency.
And while the boundaries for using the federal money are relatively broad, Hyatt said, there are some solid restrictions to consider.
“Of course, recognizing this is a one-time funding source, making sure any projects that were launched or stood up, we take into account staffing resources to manage those programs and projects,’’ he said.
To qualify, projects have to be identified by end of 2024 and the funding must be used by end of 2026, said Kim Radtke, the director of the county’s office of financial management.
Hyatt told the commissioners the ARPA funding’s requirements for affordable housing projects are broad and don’t necessarily take into account income levels or certain population demographics.
Projects could include new construction, rental assistance and “any sort of program that could meet the impact of COVID-19. It’s fairly discretionary to meet our community impacts.’’
While specific projects are not yet in the offing, Commissioner Mike Moran questioned just how the board would decide what meets the affordable housing criteria. “You could ask 10 people and get 11 different concepts of what that means,” he said.
Moran and Commissioner Christian Ziegler also warned of the complications of interfering with free-market forces that have driving up housing costs in the region. Housing prices have set records for single-family home sales and condominium sales throughout 2021. Median rents rose above $2,000 in 2021.
“I’m kind of applauding the flexibility,’’ Commissioner Nancy Detert said. “Every community is different. I’m glad the federal government gave us fewer strings than they would normally give us.’’
Detert suggested some of the funding stripped away from the Phillippi Creek sewer project could be redirected toward affordable housing, potentially doubling or tripling that line item to as much as $15 million. She mentioned the south county Loveland Center which is ready to add 60-80 new units for low-income seniors on its eight acres.
“This windfall of federal dollars I think should go to solve the problems we’re facing in our community today,’’ she said of the Phillippi Creek money. “A lot of problems as a result of COVID and the economy. Those are the top two things people worry about. Maybe moving that money into the affordable housing fund. I think it’s Rotaty’s slogan, do what you can, where you can for whom you can.”
Phillippi Creek septic systems
Deter said she’s been working on the conversion of the septic systems to county sewer service for decades, and it’s still an issue. Zieglar suggested the $31 million could perhaps be better spent paying down the cost of the county’s first advanced wastewater treatment plant, which he said is likely a better more efficient way to improve the quality of the Sarasota Bay estuary than eliminating 1,340 septic systems.
Septic systems are often blamed for declines in water quality, but connections to utility systems are typically expensive for homeowners.
Mike Mylett, the director of public utilities for Sarasota County, said following the $31 million project to run sewer lines to the affected homes, property owners still would face about $10,000 to hire a private plumbing contractor to covert from a septic system to a public sewer system and pay a county-required wastewater capacity impact fee.
“Are they going to say ‘thank you commission, this is just great’,” Commission chair Al Maio asked Mylett. “Or will there be pushback. What’s the feel for that group?’’
Mylett said his office typically sees about 93% compliance with septic-to-sewer conversions in the first year after the project is completed. But there are about 34,000 septic systems in unincorporated Sarasota County.
Ziegler, in supporting other uses for the allotted $31 million, said he’d rather focus on reducing the cost to customers of sewer service. County leaders in 2019 raised sewer rates and other fees to help finance the AWT plant on Iona Road. Those rates will return to previous levels following the completion of the plant.
Once complete, the new plant will reduce released nutrient levels from 20 milligrams per liter of nitrogen to 3.
“What I’m trying to do and what I’m going to continue to try to do is basically lift the couch cushions and find as much money as you can to put toward these AWT pay downs,’’ Ziegler said. “Then we can lower those rates.’’