Okeechobee County considers uses for additional CARES Act funding

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OKEECHOBEE — Upgrades to county buildings and addition of free WiFi hot spots are under consideration by Okeechobee County.

Okeechobee County is processing applications for grants funded for the county’s first allocation of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding and considering ideas for use of the rest of the money.

At the Sept. 11 commission meeting, Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said the county has received the first 25% of their CARES Act allocation, about $1.8 million.

He said they are working through the applications for grants to small businesses, home businesses and restaurant employees.

The Treasury Department and Federal Emergency Management Agency continue to modify guidelines every two weeks, said Burroughs.

The commissioners agreed to modify the wording on the grants to include those who “closed due to circumstances of COVID-19” even if they were not specifically required to close under the governor’s executive orders.

“A business may not be closed, but they may have reduced hours the employees are working,” said County Administrator Robbie Chartier.

“Some businesses were not ordered to close, but they closed due to something that came about because of the pandemic,” said Burroughs.

So far, the county has used about $1.2 million of the available grant funding, said Burroughs.

He said there have been some problems with processing the grants.

“Some folks did not read the instructions,” he explained.

“We found people who were doing business without a business license from the county or the city.

“We found people who had not paid their taxes,” he continued.

“We’ve got a lot of people coming in and getting their business licenses,” he said. People are paying their back taxes.

“It is amazing how many people don’t know how to fill out a W-9,” Burroughs added.

The county anticipates another $5.4 million in CARES Act funding.

Burroughs said they are under a deadline to decide how to spend that money.

“What money we don’t spent by the end of December could go somewhere else,” said Commissioner Kelly Owens. “That’s the political side of it.”

Burroughs added “As it is today, as of Dec. 31, it goes back to the U.S. Treasury.”

He said the federal government is considering an extension for the use of the funding.

Ideas for the use of the additional $5.4 million allocated for Okeechobee County include:
• Upgrades to air handling systems (UV and ionization) in 14 county buildings, including the jail, to reduce any issues related to COVID-19 and other viruses;
• Additional PPE (personal protection equipment) for disaster preparation; and,
• Addition of local broadband hot spots throughout the city and county, using solar-powered equipment for remote areas.

Burroughs said another idea is a food assistance program. He said Palm Beach County is using some of its CARES Act funding to send out prepaid cards to households affected by COVID-19.

He said the county needs to send their plan for use of the additional funds to the Florida Division of Emergency Management by the end of the month.

Background
At the Okeechobee County Commissioners meeting on Thursday, Aug. 20, the commissioners approved a new set of guidelines for the Okeechobee CARES Act Grant. After approving over 100 grants for distribution to small businesses, money was remaining in the fund. The commissioners voted unanimously to update the guidelines so that additional applicants could apply. The county has partnered with the Okeechobee County Economic Development Corporation (OCEDC) to provide these RELIEF funds to businesses who have suffered due to the required closures resulting from the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The money can be used to cover expenses such as employee wages, bills and rent. The emergency relief is targeted specifically to help local businesses cover immediate financial needs. Grants are strictly limited to businesses physically located within Okeechobee County. Funds can only be used to reimburse the costs of business interruption caused by required closures, provided those costs are not paid by insurance. Grant money cannot be used to pay taxes. Below is a list of requirements needed to meet eligibility requirements of the grant:

Business eligibility criteria:
• Small businesses are eligible for a one-time $7,500.
• The business must be locally or independently owned.
• The business occupies commercial space within Okeechobee County.
• Business was ordered to close under the Governor’s Executive Orders.
• Business has no more than 25, full-time equivalent (FTE) employees or subcontractors, including the business owner as of March 1, 2020.
• The business has been operating on or before March 1, 2020, and is still operating.
• Firm is expected to return to full operations after all local and state emergency guidelines during COVID-19 are rescinded.
• Up to date on real estate taxes if the applicant owns the business property.
• Each applicant will be limited to a single application per company or partnership. (For example, if you own the company and you receive a 1099, you can only apply for either the company or your 1099.

Eligibility criteria for independent contractors/sole proprietorships:
• Independent contractors/sole proprietorships in this category only are associated with individuals who work in a beauty salon, massage or barber shop business only are eligible for grants of $5,000.
• The business they work in is locally or independently owned in Okeechobee County.
• The business they work in occupies commercial space within Okeechobee County.
• Business was ordered to close under the Governor’s Executive Orders.
• The business has been operating on or before March 1, 2020, and is still operating.

Eligibility criteria for home bases businesses:
• Home based businesses may be eligible for grants of $5,000.
• The business is locally or independently owned in Okeechobee County.
• Your home-based business was ordered to close under the Governor’s Executive Orders.

Eligibility criteria for non-national, local, nonprofit organizations:
• Non-national, local, nonprofit organizations, 501(C)(3)s, may qualify for grants of $5,000.
• The business is located in Okeechobee County.
• The business occupies space within Okeechobee County.
• Business was ordered to close under the Governor’s Executive Orders.
• The business has been operating on or before March 1, 2020, and is still operating.

Eligibility criteria for Okeechobee waiters/waitresses/bartenders (specified workers):
• Specified workers such as waiters, waitresses and bartenders may qualify for grants of $2,500.
• The business they work in is locally or independently owned in Okeechobee County.
• The business they work in occupies commercial space within Okeechobee County.
• Business was ordered to close under the Governor’s Executive Orders .
• The business has been operating on or before March 1, 2020, and is still operating.

The grants will be awarded on a first come, first-served basis via fully completed applications that will be submitted online. The guidelines and application can be found on the Okeechobee County Economic Development Corporations (OCEDC) website www.ocedcorp.com. The program will begin accepting applications Thursday, Aug. 27, and will award grants until the money is exhausted. For more information interested businesses should email or call the OCEDC office at 863-357-2334 or info@ocedcorp.com .

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