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Polk CARES Provided Aid to Those in Need

Published on Dec 30, 2020

Lori Proctor keeps a handwritten tally of how she spent the $2,000 she received earlier this year from the Polk CARES 2020 program.

The makeshift ledger, written in black ink, is kept on a small notepad beside her cash register inside the gift shop at Proctors Goat Farm near Eagle Lake.

That tally is her reminder and financial accounting of the help she received that’s helped keep the doors open to her unusual goat-centric agritourism attraction and farm.

Proctor’s farm was one of more than 5,700 small businesses that were helped by the Polk CARES 2020 program. The Polk County Board of County Commissioners began the program after receiving the $126 million under the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion federal aid package Congress passed in March. The money was used to help the economy, both national and local, rebound from the pandemic shutdown.

Under terms of the program, all the money received by the county had to be spent by Dec. 30, 2020. And right now, the last of the checks are being issued by the Polk County Clerk of Courts Office, which kept a vigilant watch over how the funds were spent and how documentation was verified.

In the case of Polk, the federal aid was divided into several programs targeting some of the most vulnerable populations in Polk. In each instance, the applicant had to prove, with documentation, how they had been financially harmed by the ongoing pandemic.

A year ago, business was booming for Proctor. The demand for goat love was high and her farm had just been featured on the “Florida on a Tankful” show.

“People were going crazy for tours,” she said. “They were coming from all over the place. And then March 15 – COVID.”

It was frustrating, but understandable that people wanted to be cautious and avoid crowds. But that hurt the business she has loved for the last seven years.

The Programs

Polk’s programs divided the money between several categories over the course of the year. Those categories included individuals or households, small businesses, seniors and disabled adults, the United Way of Central Florida for individual households and nonprofit agencies, Polk County Public Schools, municipalities, Chambers of Commerce and area hospitals.

“It was challenging when you have to plan it out so quick,” said Todd Bond, Polk’s deputy county manager.

The wire transfer from the state arrived April 22. From there, Bond and his team had until Dec. 30 to determine the community’s needs, develop the program, create the structure on how to get the money to the residents and businesses and a verification system.

It was no simple task.

All he had to go on was a brief, four-page document from the Department of Treasury that essentially said the money was to be spent on COVID-19-related expenditures.

“There was really little guidance at the beginning,” Bond said. However, as the months went on, guidelines became more robust and stringent as Treasury officials updated guidelines.

It was only a couple weeks later that the first two programs, which targeted individuals and small businesses, were in place and ready to launch in mid-May.

Polk County employees from the Health and Human Services division set up a call center in the Emergency Operations Center to answer questions and verify documentation. The Information Technology Division also worked to help create web portals where residents could enter their information for the verification process.

“The Board’s direction from Day One was to get money out to the community,” Bond said.

For Sharon Mitchell, her check for $2,000 came at the right time.

Her hours at JBT Corp. in Lakeland had been cut from 40 a week to about 12, she said. “They were cut drastically. Thankfully my husband was able to keep his job, but it (money) was tight.”

Mitchell, who works as a receptionist, heard about the county’s program through a friend and she applied for the program. But then she didn’t hear anything back.

It wasn’t until she got a call from one of the Polk CARES case managers that she checked her email and saw numerous notifications that ended up in her spam folder. She had to act quickly to get the rest of her documentation submitted.

“I don’t know if there was an angel tapping me on the shoulder or what,” said Mitchell, who eventually received one of the $2,000 checks for individuals. “But she went above and beyond for us. It (the money) was a blessing to us because it came at a time when my husband and I needed it most. I thank Polk County for being there for me.”

Mitchell’s case is one of nearly 17,600 households around the county to benefit from the program. And from April until now, the county has spent and sent nearly 90 percent of those funds directly to the community. It’s a figure that Bond is particularly proud of, he said.

“The Department of Treasury said you could use this money to pay for your public safety payroll,” Bond added, noting that some major metro areas around the country used 55 to 60 percent. By comparison Polk kept about 10 percent of the funds to use toward the purchase of personal protective equipment, masks for the community and to administer the various programs.

“I felt really good about it,” Bond said with how the results played out. And by the second quarter report, Polk ranked first among Florida counties on the amount of funds spent.

Vetting and Documentation

Whenever dealing with public funds from taxpayers, oversight and verification of when and where those funds go is paramount. And balancing that with an immediate demand in an emergency situation makes for a precarious situation.

But Bond worked with the Polk County Clerk and Comptroller Stacy Butterfield and her staff to put a system together that balanced the need of both.

Through the call center, which was manned by BoCC and Clerk employees, documentation was reviewed and vetted before approvals were made and rechecked through a process. Other employees were also assisted and trained by the county’s partners at the Central Florida Development Council.

The first rounds of relief checks were mailed in May. And ever since, there has been a steady stream of them leaving the Clerk’s office.

“Normally, we only write checks once a week,” said Dee Dee Beaver, director for the Polk County Clerk and Comptroller’s Office. “But with this, we were sending them out about every other day. Every time we had a batch we’d try to get them out as soon as we could.”

Each of the programs had different sets of requirements when it came to documentation; however, those for small business was the most stringent, Bond said.

For the individual households and seniors programs, verification of identity, address and loss of income or impact from the pandemic was required.

On the small business side, the document verification was more extensive with the review of business licenses, locations, base of operations, state registration and making sure the business was in good standing. To help with the training of this, the county enlisted the help of the Central Florida Development Council.

“We wanted to make sure we were helping the businesses that were doing the right thing,” Bond said. “We didn’t want to fund a business that didn’t have its primary business here in Polk County.”

Teams of financial professionals in the Clerk’s office poured over the documentation, reviewing the data of the smallest of mistakes before checks were mailed.

“It was a huge undertaking,” Beaver said. “I’m proud of Polk County because we united in a lot of ways other places didn’t.”

For Delia and Marc Thilus, who own Moonshine Auto Detailing in Winter Haven, the help couldn’t have come fast enough for their fledgling business.

Before the pandemic began, they always had a steady stream of customers who wanted their cars looking new and shiny. But then, like with so many others around Polk, the customers backed off.

They tried altering their operation. They wore masks to promote safety and social distancing. They tried informing their customers that they would travel to them.

And on occasion, they would get a job. But it wasn’t often enough.

“People didn’t seem to understand,” Delia Thilus said. “We’d get maybe two cars a week. Business is a little better now and it’s starting to gradually pick up. But it’s not back to where it was. At least we are getting something.”

Thilus now takes appointments all over the county, wherever they can find work to help support themselves and their four children.

“It was getting really tight,” she said on not being able to attract business to pay their bills. “We were about a month-and-a-half behind. We pushed back and paid what we could. I don’t like to owe anyone money.”

“I wondered, ‘Are we going to make it through the next three to four months?’” she asked.

For now, the couple is continuing to take appointments and drive where they can with their mobile unit.

While the process is coming to a close, unless a new round of Congressional funds becomes available, Bond and Beaver both said they are proud of what Polk County has accomplished.

“It’s largely the great work of the Health and Human Services staff, the folks in Information Technology, the Clerk’s staff, the Communications Division and the people in the Budget office who made this work, Bond said. “They just did an outstanding job.”