Escambia County Commissioners balk at price tag for CARES Act application portal
Escambia County was on its way Thursday to launching an online portal to accept applications for a rent assistance program, but commissioners balked when they found out the price tag for keeping the website open would be $25,000 a month.
Instead, the county's IT department will quickly work to stand up its own system on the county's website to allow people to fill out PDF applications, beginning Tuesday, and the county will also accept paper applications.
The applications are for a rent, mortgage and utility assistance program that will distribute $903,834 in grants of up to $3,000 to families affected by COVID-19 with CARES Act funds from Florida Housing Finance Corp.
The funding is separate from a larger $57 million the county is eligible to receive and distribute through the end of the year from the federal CARES Act legislation.
The county hired the Integrity Group consulting firm for $24,560 to advise the county on how to set up its CARES Act program and build a web portal for the county to accept applications.
However, the contract did not include what would happen after the website was built, with those details to be negotiated this month.
Although the Florida Housing Finance Corp. program was separate, the county asked the Integrity Group to set up its portal to include applications for that program as well. The county has already advertised it would start taking applications Tuesday for the Florida Housing program.
Escambia CARES Act:Half of Escambia County CARES Act funding will go to families and businesses
Working out the details:Escambia County still working on details of CARES Act funds, OKs rapid testing and food programs
Commission Chairman Steven Barry and Commissioner Lumon May seemed unaware that the maintenance of the website was not covered under the original contract.
"Why would we pay for the creation of a portal without knowing what it's going to cost each month for the rest of the year," Barry asked County Administrator Janice Gilley. "That's not part of the contract?"
Gilley confirmed that it was not part of the original contract but did not elaborate.
"I'm not that keen on paying for the portal establishment without (knowing the cost)," Barry said. "It's like buying a Blu-ray disc when you don't have a Blu-ray player. I mean, it's not a very good decision."
Gilley said that was something the county was still negotiating and was looking into whether its own IT Department could take over the system.
Gary Yates, with the Intergrity Group, told the board he estimated the maintenance of the site would cost $25,000 a month.
The cost for the system would be funded out of the CARES Act, but both Barry and May pointed out that would mean less money that would go to Escambia County residents.
The board agreed Thursday to have more than $8 million in CARES Act funds go toward rent and mortgage assistance, as well another $8 million toward grants for business with the goal of opening applications up by Sept. 15.
CARES Act funding has a deadline to be spent by the end of the year or it won't be spent at all.
'A very limited time to spend a significant amount of money'
Most of the nearly six-hour meeting Thursday was spent on discussing how much the county would spend on different eligible uses for the CARES Act funds, and toward the end of the meeting, discussion turned to the web portal the county had paid for to process applications from residents, business and other organizations for the funds.
Yates told the board that if the county decided not to maintain the portal, the county would still own the portal and could still use it to take applications.
Bart Siders, IT director for the county, said if the county did use that option, his staff would have legal access to the code that runs the website to fix any potential errors or problems.
Siders also told the board he was only brought into the discussion about the web portal on Wednesday.
Commissioner Robert Bender said he supported keeping the Integrity Group on as consultants to help navigate the complex CARES Act, including running the website, so the county get distribute all of the eligible funds without making a mistake and facing having to repay the money back.
"We have a very limited time to spend a significant amount of money," Bender said.
Commissioner Doug Underhill was absent from the meeting and Commissioner Jeff Bergosh left earlier in the day. Bender attempted to argue that the county should move forward with using the web portal on Thursday but relented after being faced with the potential of losing a vote 2-1.
The board agreed to accept paper and digital PDF applications Tuesday, and have Gilley continue to negotiate with the Integrity Group to bring back a proposal at its next meeting Thursday.
Jim Little can be reached at email@example.com and 850-208-9827.