LARGO — During a Sept. 16 discussion on the best use of American Rescue Plan funds, Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton asked commissioners if they would consider spending up to $4 million to incentivize employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Burton’s plan is to pay $750 to each employee that is already vaccinated and those that get vaccinated by a certain date, not yet set but likely to be six weeks after the program is implemented. He said he had talked to the constitutional officers, including the sheriff and they all favor using the incentive as a way to get more employees vaccinated.
The county is struggling to maintain its workforce with so many employees off due to COVID, Burton said. He said up to one-third of employees are out in some areas.
“I would like to use some of the funds (American Rescue Plan) to incentivize employees to take the vaccine,” Burton said.
He said having more employees vaccinated improved their health and safety for the workforce.
He prefers giving an incentive as opposed to making it a mandate, adding that he didn’t consider using either method until the numbers spiked and made it difficult to get work done with so many of the staff out sick.
Burton doesn’t believe the incentive will result in 100% of employees getting the shot. Some don’t believe in it and won’t do it, he said. But, some just don’t care and incentivizing might help.
If commissioners approve the program, employees would receive the incentives before Christmas, Burton said.
The commission used a show of hands to show the majority was in favor of moving ahead.
Assistant County Administrator Kevin Knutson told commissioners that the American Rescue Plan was a “rare opportunity to catch up on things they’ve wanted to do.”
It is legislation signed by the president on March 11 that provides $1.9 trillion to assist in pandemic recovery and create resilient communities. Pinellas County’s share is $189 million.
The money can be used to pay for eligible expenses starting March 3. A commitment to spend the money must be made by Dec. 31, 2024 and the money must be spent by Dec. 31, 2026. An interim performance report must be filed by Oct. 10 and a quarterly financial report by Oct. 31 with an annual performance plan due every Dec. 31.
Lara Wojahn, program manager for the American Rescue Plan, said the county would get the money in two shares — the first $95 million by August of this year and the second $95 million by Aug. 2022. The county must use it or lose it by Dec. 31, 2026, she said.
Wojahn went over eligible categories in which money can be spent, including public health, negative economic impacts, services to disproportionately impacted communities, premium pay for frontline workers, lost revenue replacement and water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
The Office of Management Budget proposed five guiding principles for expenditures of the money. The first is that it be strategic with significant investments that have long-term impact to the community and align with the county’s strategic plan.
The second principle is to prioritize equity with a focus on disproportionately impacted communities. The third is efficiency and making sure projects minimize administrative overhead and there is no duplication. The fourth is accountability to the federal government and the public with plans and achievements that are transparent. The last is to be fiscally sustainable.
The county estimates its lost revenue is about $25 million for a time ending Dec. 31, 2020. Expenditures in the last revenue replacement has a maximum flexibility and can be used for almost any general government purpose, Wojahn said, including capital improvement projects.
The county proposes to spend $15-20 million on accelerated road projects, including road resurfacing and $1-4 million on cybersecurity.
Spending in the public health category include $10-15 million and includes money previously allocated from reserves to pay for a coordinated access model for mental health and the sheriff’s mental health units. Staff also proposed to spend $8-10 million for hardware and software for public health facilities, such as the Department of Health – Pinellas buildings.
Several proposed projects were on the for infrastructure projects, including $25-30 million for parks and playground improvements, such as construction at Raymond Neri Park in Lealman and updates to playgrounds to make them ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant.
Another $5-10 million was suggested to pay for sidewalks and drainage projects for the county’s Safe Routes to School program. Stormwater inflow and infiltration projects would get $25-35 million under the preliminary plants.
Staff suggests spending $25-30 million for manufactured home communities’ wastewater collection systems and $10-$15 million for a septic to sewer program. The last item on the list was $15-20 million for regional stormwater projects, such as the ones needed in Greater Lealman and Joe’s Creek Trail Greenway.
Commissioner Charlie Justice asked if there was a big project that could be done with the money.
“Never in a lifetime will we have $180 million,” he said.
Director of OM&B said no one project fit the bill, adding that the many smaller projects could be “transformational” for the neighborhoods where they were done.
Commissioner Pat Gerard asked if staff had considered replacement of the Clearwater courthouse building and if money would be available to make sure all Penny for Pinellas projects were done as promised. She also wanted to allocate money to affordable housing if possible.
Commission Chair Dave Eggers suggested money to repave areas of the Pinellas Trail. Wojahn said that would be an eligible expense since it would help get people outdoors, which is a healthy activity.
Burton showed the commission a large stack of proposed projects and said it would take time to go through them all. He said the plan was to start with projects that staff believes everyone can support and then evaluate them against the program criteria.
The plan will then be submitted to the Treasury.
Other projects that could be explored include job training and workforce development and brownfield remediation.
Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.