Charlotte County commissioners changed course Tuesday and authorized grants to local businesses even if they have received federal pandemic aid.

Economic Development Director Dave Gammon outlined a system of increased scrutiny to ensure that businesses have properly spent all of their federal aid. Businesses will have to provide a financial statement showing their spending and revenues, plus evidence such as checks showing where federal grant money went.

This means local businesses can apply for grants up to $20,000, even if they also received funds from the federal Payroll Protection Program. Without opening up the grants to these businesses, the county was unable to hand out more than $500,000 of $6.6 million in federal funding to the county, Gammon told commissioners Tuesday.

At an earlier presentation on the same topic last week, several board members said they would give unspent money back to the federal government rather than risk giving it to businesses that were abusing coronavirus aid programs.

Commissioner Joe Tiseo pointed to a Fort Myers roofer arrested for allegedly buying a $700,000 boat with his federal funds. Stories abound across the country.

Although it was not an official vote last week, all commissioners except Stephen R. Deutsch said they would rather give the money back. Deutsch made a motion last week to expand the grant program, but no one seconded his motion.

The vote was unanimous this week, however, to expand the enhanced program.

Using a system adopted by Sarasota County, Gammon said businesses will have to spend the money first and seek reimbursement. They must have a business bank account and a tax return. Business owners do not have to live in the county.

Tiseo said he had received letters of concern from local businesses that had received federal funds.

“This is greatly improved from where we were before,” he said. “This is something I could live with.”

After hearing the opinion of commissioners last week, many local businesses spoke up saying they should not be denied assistance out of suspicion that they misused federal funds.

“Being penalized for receiving funds to cover eight weeks of salary ... when we are now going into 26 weeks of having to figure out how to keep our businesses afloat seems short-sighted,” Executive Director Gary Butler of the local Military Heritage Museum said to the Sun in an email last week.

After hearing commissioners’ complaints last week, Pam Monnier of GrandCare Plus, worried she could not get help to keep her home health agency going.

“What a shame they (commissioners) have the funds to help us in the community, but it’s easier to return the funds the government has given us, than to relax the guidelines,” she wrote last week.

The program does not help people who operate businesses without a bank account, tax record or registration. Those people need to apply for personal assistance, Human Services Director Carrie Walsh said, for federal or private funds to help with rent, mortgage, utilities or childcare.


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