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Where will the CARES Act money go?

Gadsden Commissioners assign funding from federal grant

The Gadsden County Board of County Commissioners held a CARES Act workshop meeting Wednesday, August 12 to discuss CARES Act funding distribution for the county in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The CARES Act is an economic stimulus bill passed by the U.S. Congress to soften the economic fallout of COVID-19.

The board met with The Integrity Group, the county’s contracted consulting agency, to oversee the development of a funding plan and implementation of an online grant application portal. Also present were managers from some of the county’s six municipalities, as well as Colonel Bobby Collins from the sheriff’s department.

Chairman Anthony Viegbesie began the workshop while reminding the commissioners that they can’t be “Santa Claus” with CARES Act funding because they do not have a “bottomless pit’ of funds.

Commissioner Eric Hinson listed four main items he felt that needed the most attention: county-wide broadband, a hospital retrofit to accommodate needs related to COVID-19, the small business grant program, and funding the sheriff’s department.

Commissioner Gene Morgan recommended that the board focus on items that need to immediately be funded by the CARES Act, due to those funds only being available until December 30.

Commissioner Brenda Holt said the process of developing a funding plan was taking too long and that it is better to get something instead of nothing, which she believes will happen if the board keeps stalling.

Commissioner Sherrie Taylor emphasized her desire for the immediate approval and implementation of a county homeless program, stating that some individuals “would be surprised how many people are living in their cars today.”

Viegbesie provided new information regarding a possible broadband network for county residents to utilize. He said The Gadsden County School District already owns a broadband system that will cover the county by using 15 of their busses that are equipped as mobile internet hotspots; the district would just need to park the busses at strategic points in the county.

He also stated a tentative plan for the county to use a “jetpack” hotspot device that will provide internet for households with an ability to connect 15-18 people without impairing connectivity, if the fee averages $39 per household, which would be funded through the CARES Act.

This will provide every household with internet access and enhance the school district’s system of busses.

Holt responded, saying the board needed to have an official meeting with the school board as soon as possible in order to finalize a joint plan for broadband.

Morgan suggested broadband was not an immediate need, but Hinson disagreed, stating that over half of the county’s public school students would be virtually attending school starting August 31.

The board then heard funding requests from representatives of the county’s six municipalities. Managers from Havana and Chattahoochee were not present.

Greensboro Town Manager Dennis Henderson said his town would defer to the county commission’s judgement on dispersing CARES Act funding, if the county deemed Greensboro necessary for receiving funds.

Henderson also said that if Greensboro could not justify any CARES Act funding, then the monies would be returned to the county to be utilized elsewhere.

The board then proceeded to go through each item to be funded and discussed funding amounts that would not take them above the $8 million budget.

Throughout the workshop, Viegbesie repeated that the plan and funding amounts being discussed were tentative and would be finalized at a later date after getting final pricing information for broadband, the hospital buildout, and specific funding request documents from the six municipalities.

Colonel Collins addressed the board, saying the CARES Act funds requested by the sheriff’s department will only be used to reimburse expenses already paid by the department.

The department’s Chief Financial Officer, Katherine Pondexter, was present at the meeting and reemphasized Col. Collins statements. She mentioned that several deputies and officers have been exposed to COVID-19 and in their absence, other officers had to work overtime.

Integrity Group told the board that the sheriff’s department would be able to be fully reimbursed under the CARES Act funding, with an additional $225,000 available to the sheriff’s office for new equipment that Col. Collins said the department needed immediately.

Other figures tentatively agreed upon by the board include:

  • $1.2 million for a small business assistance program
  • $1.4 million for a residents assistance program 
  • $1 million for the broadband access program
  • $1 million for a hospital buildout and temporary shelter
  • $75,000 for an outreach program through various non-profits 
  • $416,970.44 for two new infectious disease transport ambulances for EMS
  • $50,000 for disinfectant and other supplies
  • $50,000 for a risk-assessment tool for COVID-19 and other future disasters
  • $20,000 for legal fees
  • $6,000 for body temperature kiosks at the courthouse
  • $3,500 for remote court video equipment
  • $100,000 for a homeless population support program 
  • $803,000 for the sheriff’s department
  • $400,000 for the municipalities
  • $395,000 for payment to Integrity Group
  • $267,117.71 set aside for any contingency

The Gadsden County Board of County Commissioners also held an emergency meeting on Friday, August 14 to approve the COVID-19 Resolution 2020-43, which would extend the county’s mask mandate, group size limit, and curfew of 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. This extension was passed 4-1 with commissioner Morgan dissenting.

Chairman Viegbesie also moved to temporarily end Friday emergency meetings until Governor DeSantis made changes to his executive order, saying the county was only required to have the Chairman sign a resolution every seven  days if there was no change. Morgan said he was all for not having meetings if they are unnecessary.

Viegbesie emphasized that the spending distribution plan with Integrity Group includes 75 percent that the county has not yet received from the state.

He said the county needs to get the governor’s office to understand that Gadsden is a fiscally stressed county and does not have the money to spend up front to be reimbursed later.

Commissioner Taylor stated broadband and the hospital buildout need to happen as soon as possible and wants to get names and information of grant applicants into the application portal.

Quincy Mayor Ronte Harris was present at the emergency meeting and asked for clarification of the curfew as it pertains to fast-food restaurants and gas station convenience stores. The board stated that all restaurants are subject to the curfew, but any store that sells fuel is exempt.

The commissioners made their final comments with Hinson expressing a desire to swiftly approve the broadband plan. Taylor suggested the board hold another emergency meeting to select a vendor to move forward with broadband. The board then resolved to look further into that possibility.

Kevin Murphy –