The Department of Children and Families on Monday night responded to Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried‘s letter demanding information on its plan for $660 million in unaccounted for funds from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
“I write today regarding concerns that the State of Florida may lose up to $660 million in federal emergency rental assistance funding due to the Florida Department of Children and Families’ failure to timely communicate with the U.S. Department of the Treasury,” Fried wrote in her letter to DCF Secretary Shevaun Harris.
But DCF said that’s not the case.
“Florida has missed no deadlines,” DCF Spokesperson Laura Walthall told Florida Politics. “The Commissioner is incorrect and has outdated data.”
Treasury data showed OUR Florida, the state-run program formed under DCF to distribute ERAP funds, had only spent 24% of the $870 million in federal pandemic rental assistance it was granted by Sept. 30. On Oct. 4, the Treasury told grantees who had expended less than 30% of funds they were required to submit an improvement plan by Nov. 15 or risk losing the remaining funds. In Florida, that would’ve been $660 million in emergency rental assistance.
Florida Politics first asked DCF for an update on ERAP funding on Nov. 10, but it did not confirm the plan was sent until Monday evening. With its response to Fried’s letter, DCF emailed a copy of a letter and plan sent to the Treasury on Nov. 15.
According to the letter, Florida’s spending has improved in recent months. Maggie Mickler, DCF’s assistant secretary, told the Treasury OUR Florida nearly doubled its expenditures between Sept. 30 and Nov. 15, increasing from 24% to 42%, or to about $325.5 million. And Walthall said it has only gotten better since then.
“As of December 6, the Department of Children and Families has distributed more than $550 million to over 110,000 households,” Walthall said. “Funds distribution increased by 79% from September 2021 to October 2021, and has continued at a strong pace.”
But Fried’s office said it stands by the letter after Gov. Ron DeSantis‘s Press Secretary Christina Pushaw accused Fried of not letting “the facts get in the way of her political theatre.” Fried said the slow release of ERAP information follows “a disturbing trend within the DeSantis administration of spurning or mismanaging — perhaps purposely — billions in federal assistance on school funding, low-income nutrition assistance for hungry families through Pandemic SNAP and Pandemic EBT, and weekly unemployment aid.”
Erin Moffet, a spokesperson for Fried, said releasing the Nov. 15 letter and plan is a direct response to Fried’s Monday letter and said Fried’s letter was based on the publicly available information at the time.
“Once again, we see the DeSantis Administration only make COVID-related information public after the Commissioner publicly inquires on behalf of Floridians due to the lack of transparency by the Governor and his agencies,” Moffet said. “We hope to see DCF expeditiously disburse not only the remaining federal rental assistance, but also the federal child nutrition assistance that has been delayed under their watch. Commissioner Fried will continue to hold the DeSantis administration accountable, fighting for Florida families in need.”
According to the Program Improvement Plan sent to Florida Politics, its plan is mostly stick to its current plan.
“The State of Florida does not have any key obstacles to report,” Mickler wrote in the plan. “As Treasury’s guidance has evolved, the State of Florida has increased program flexibilities to increase the number of eligible households served and ensure timely distribution of benefits to Florida’s families.”
And under “Improvement Action Items,” Mickler said Florida was continuing efforts to streamline the application process; enhance call center capabilities; implement a team to assist landlords with 10 or more properties; conduct a quality review process; streamline payment processes; and increase staff.
Mickler said Florida anticipates spending all of the funds by January.
The Treasury said it has received a number of submissions from grantees and is in the process of reviewing them over the coming weeks.