Most CARES money distributed: Island families and businesses take advantage of federal relief funds

  • Tricia Hodson fills a bag with fresh produce, ready to deliver to kupuna in Waimea earlier this month. The Hawaii County Economic Opportunity Council is delivering seniors around Hawaii Island five frozen dinners plus a bag of fresh produce with its CARES Act funding. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Kathy Manuel hands an Umeke Ai to a vehicle at the drive-through pick up in September in Waimea. The program provides an umeke ai, or food basket or bag, filled with staple Native Hawaiian foods at a discounted price thanks to partnerships, contributions, donations and most recently a $100,000 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act grant via Hawaii County. That grant will fund the program through the end of the year. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • Food purchased and distributed by ZIP code. (Hawaii County government)

More than 1,540 Hawaii Island businesses and nonprofit organizations have received an average $8,961 in government assistance, 812 families have received an average $4,415 to help with their rent and mortgages and 115,581 individuals have received food so far under programs paid by federal coronavirus relief funds.

That’s according to officials in Mayor Harry Kim’s administration who briefed County Council members Tuesday.

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The council Finance Committee heard a program-by-program update of how the administration is using the $80 million it received as part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known colloquially as CARES Act funding.

Facing a Dec. 30 use-it-or-lose-it deadline, Deputy Finance Director Steven Hunt said the county is on track to spend it all. If there is anything left over as the deadline nears, the county will buy extra personal protective equipment, sanitizer and shelf-stable food, he said.

“It is important to you as well as the public to know where we are at this juncture,” Hunt said.

The briefing came at the request of Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, who was concerned because the state’s CARES funding dashboard shows Hawaii County as spending only 32% of its allotted funding.

But Hunt assured the council the state’s information hasn’t yet been updated with the latest numbers, which he said showed $32.9 million spent, $21.2 million encumbered and $25.8 million committed to be spent by the deadline. He said Hawaii County’s figures on the state site don’t include the encumbered money, while other counties included theirs, making it look like Hawaii County is falling behind. About 80% of the money has been spent or encumbered, he said.

Food distribution has drawn on locally sourced products in order to give local farmers, ranchers and producers a financial shot in the arm. Some 284,838 pounds of fresh fruits, vegetables, starches, meat and seafood have so far been used in feeding island families through the program.

The county is tracking by ZIP code where food is produced and where it’s needed most as the program adapts to ensure nothing is wasted, said Riley Saito, from the county Department of Research and Development. The program has adjusted food drop offs to put more into Ka‘u and other rural areas where gaps occurred.

In all, 11 nonprofits received grants ranging from $100,000 to $900,000 for food distribution.

Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder and Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter asked why food programs were awarded to certain nonprofits while the island’s primary food bank, The Food Basket, didn’t receive anything. Research and Development Director Diane Ley said The Food Basket missed the deadline, but it has received other relief money through the Community Development Block Grant program as well as additional staffing through the county administration budget.

That didn’t satisfy Poindexter, who said the only reason The Food Basket missed the deadline was because its application file got corrupted in transit. The county should have been more flexible, she said.

“This island will lose out because of the skill sets and expertise they have to feed the people — they’ve been doing it for years,” Poindexter said. “They have the model and we don’t have to rebuild what they built.”

Kanealii-Kleinfelder and Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz praised the administration for its quick work getting money out to businesses.

The county has so far doled out $13.8 million and is on track to spend all of the allotted $22 million by the end of November, Saito said. He said there’s been a 94% approval rate for businesses, and from application to cutting a check is about three days.

“When you think how quickly government operates, this is like lightning speed,” Kierkiewicz said.

Kanealii-Kleinfelder agreed.

“This program has exceeded my expectations in the speed of grant awards to business,” he said.

Still, even with the successes, the big question is still hanging over everyone’s heads. What about next year?

“The bigger question becomes what happens in January when at least this current funding is no longer available, will these families be in a position to maintain and stabilize themselves,” asked Executive Assistant Sharon Hirota. “That’s the conversation we’re having now. How do we prepare for January and 2021?”

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Even with tough times likely ahead, the government and the community have learned a lot over this past year, Ley said.

“We can’t really touch each other right now and hug each other, but we can reach out to each other,” Ley said. “This community is stronger for it all and it’s united.”

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