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Unexpected federal funding to boost St. Johns County COVID-19 recovery

St. Johns County to get $46 million in CARES Act funding.

St. Johns County is getting unexpected federal funding for COVID-19 economic relief and officials there say they’ll likely revamp their “Back to Business Program” designed to help local businesses recover from the impacts of economic shutdowns.

Joy Andrews, deputy county administrator for St. Johns County, said her office was informed this week the Florida Division of Emergency Management now has $46 million available for the county to assist with coronavirus-related recovery. The money came from the U.S. Treasury through the federal CARES Act.

The latest funding is part of the $5.9 billion the state received from the federal government. Larger counties in Florida received $2.5 billion directly from the federal treasury, bringing the state’s total received funds to $8.3 billion.

“It’s going to hugely benefit [the county] from the economic recovery perspective,” Andrews said.

The county did not apply for the funding. It’s part of a broader relief effort for counties with populations under 500,000 people that have been impacted by coronavirus.

The county did get some state funding initially for economic recovery,  but most of it was going to be paid for with community development block grants that were being reallocated to the Back to Business Program.

St. Johns County officials had originally reallocated the grant money for the business economic recovery program to the tune of $2.5 million in federal Housing and Urban Development funds.

The county’s Back to Business Program closed applications June 1. A total of 304 St. Johns County small business owners applied for grants of up to $10,000 per business. More than 200 business owners were approved.

The Back to Business Program was originally opened for small businesses with up to 50 employees. But with the addition of federal funds, Andrews said there’s likely to be major changes in the criteria.

“Most of them are at worst small businesses. However, with the magnitude of the amount of funds that we’ll receive our strategy may be shifting a little more toward an elevated level,” Andrews said. “But we have to establish a nexus between COVID and how we disburse funds… . This is a one-time opportunity.”

There are still technicalities to work through. Andrews said the county commission is likely to finalize plans Tuesday at a special meeting to renew the county’s emergency declaration, which the county must do every seven days.

“We don’t have the money, yet. Our board [of county commissioners] has to take action to accept these funds,” Andrews said. “If we are going to receive those funds, we will not only loosen up our criteria of eligibility… it will likely open up more funds for other businesses.”

“We didn’t’ know we were going to get the [U.S. Treasury] money. When we designed the program, it was only $2.5 million. So we were only giving some 200 businesses $10,000 apiece. We’re quickly moving towards receiving those funds and redesigning our program,” Andrews said.

The influx of new money could cause some delays for businesses already approved.

“We now have to redirect the funds through the CARES Act funds. But they’ll get the money in a couple weeks. That will cause some delays,” Andrews said, adding some businesses may end up getting more than the original $10,000 maximum.

Money not used for the business relief program will likely be used for fiber optic upgrades for private businesses and help in developing remote working programs for county staff to work out of their homes during future emergencies.

Written By

Drew Dixon is a journalist of 40 years who has reported in print and broadcast throughout Florida, starting in Ohio in the 1980s. He is also an adjunct professor of philosophy and ethics at three colleges, Jacksonville University, University of North Florida and Florida State College at Jacksonville. You can reach him at drewdixonwriting@gmail.com.

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