CARES money to hit the streets in a few months: Council begins process of doling out millions

  • Spending $80 million. (Hawaii County)

County Council members are urging Mayor Harry Kim’s administration to push coronavirus relief funds out as quickly as possible to island businesses so they can get residents back to work.

Details of the $80 million coming from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act began taking shape during an intense 2 1/2-hour special session Wednesday, as the administration fleshed out broad spending categories for the county’s share of the money.

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With a Dec. 30 “use it or lose it” deadline, the county is scrambling to get money out fast, while still adhering to the required competitive process. Administrators have decided to first put out a request for proposals from financial institutions, management companies and nonprofits that have the capacity to solicit proposals and administer grants.

That RFP should go out next week in an expedited process that would have the winning bidder or bidders being able to start soliciting their own proposals by the end of this month or the beginning of August. The fee for those administering the grants would run from 2% to 4%.

“We really want to get the money out to the people and out on the streets,” said Finance Director Deanna Sako.

Hawaii County’s official unemployment rate is 20% but Kohala Councilman Tim Richards thinks it’s actually higher than that. It’s unknown what the actual number is, with people leaving the job market or taking retirement obscuring the count.

Deputy Finance Director Steve Hunt agreed it’s important to get the money out.

“This is a stimulus package and we’ve been encouraged to get this through as quickly as possible,” he said.

But the county budget-crunchers warned the council that the county has so far received only half of the money. Because the funds were given to the state to distribute to the smaller municipalities, the state has made a number of requirements, including retaining the right to terminate the agreement at any time and delegating to the county functions such as lifeguards, paramedics and airport screeners previously held by the state.

With the repercussions from the COVID-19 pandemic in a state of flux, the plan could change at any time, Sako said. The county is required to send monthly spending reports to the state.

“Trying to nail Jell-O to a wall, that’s what it seems like right now,” said Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas.

Spending $80 million has been broken into six categories, with the largest titled Hawaii Island Recovery Initiatives. That consists of $22 million in business grants and $10 million in individual grants to prevent housing displacement.

Business grants can be used for “financial obligations including but not limited to rent, leases, mortgage, vehicle lease, master supply agreements, non-governmental utilities and reopening costs,” according to the county.

Businesses that have not received any federal grants would be ranked higher than those that already have, Hunt said Deputy Finance Director Steve Hunt. There’s just not enough money to go around. With 22,000 businesses on the island, each would get only $1,000 if every business got something.

Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder, who noted, “I am one of the few people here who has a business,” disagreed that businesses that haven’t yet received stimulus funds should get top priority.

“Hit as many businesses as possible but also give to businesses that were forced to close,” he said. “We have a lot of unemployed people but the business was forced to close down.”

Individual grants include payments for rent, lease, mortgage and non-governmental utilities. The money would be paid directly to the mortgage company, landlord or utility, rather than to the individual, Hunt said.

Public safety — the county’s response to COVID-19 and administrative costs — gets the next largest chunk at $18.3 million. Personal protective equipment, disinfectant, sanitizer, face masks, face shields, gloves, foggers as well as costs for lifeguards at Hapuna and Paradise Park and Emergency Medical Services are included. A full $10 million of that fund is left in reserve for the anticipated second wave response and unanticipated costs.

There’s $12.6 million for community assistance. That incorporates food assistance, childcare, community and family resilience programs and outreach programs.

Among the outreach programs are cells on wheels vehicles that can park outside housing developments, schools and community centers in areas with spotty internet or Wi-Fi service to improve connectivity for students and adults.

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The 19-page spending plan, which is subject to change as developments occur, can be found at http://records.hawaiicounty.gov/Weblink/0/doc/998601/Page1.aspx

Bill 176, which appropriates the money, was passed unanimously by the council on first reading and will be taken up again next Wednesday.

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