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Escambia County issues CARES Act grants to 4,555 families hurt by pandemic, 945 remain

Jim Little
Pensacola News Journal

Escambia County has mailed checks to more than 80% of the households approved for CARES Act family grants and expects to get the rest of the checks out before the end of the year.

As of Monday, the county had sent 4,555 of the 5,500 checks approved for the grant funds, according to the county's online check register. The remaining 945 checks will go out before the end of 2020, county officials said last week. 

The grant program awards $3,000 payments to households that were impacted financially by the COVID-19 pandemic and that applied to the county for the grants in September.

The Escambia County Commission allocated $16.5 million from its $57 million share of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, better known as the CARES Act, to the family grants. That $16.5 million allows for 5,500 families to each receive $3,000.

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Grant increased:Escambia County increases CARES family grant award to $3,000 after more than 9,300 applications

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The funding was awarded to the county through the state, and the law gave local governments broad leeway on how to spend the funds to help residents recover from the pandemic.

When the county launched its grant program earlier this year, it found itself almost overwhelmed by the demand for funds. In the four days that the county accepted applications, more than 9,558 households applied, far outstripping the amount of money available for the program. Applications were approved in the order in which they were received.

The county set up an application portal on its website for applicants to check the status of their applications.

A status that states "application under review" means that household's application was not one of the 5,500 that were approved, and that household will not receive a grant unless more federal funding is provided to the county, according to a county press release issued last week.

Clara Long, director of the county's Neighborhood and Human Services Department, said in the release that county staff completed the work in approving all 5,500 grants, and the applications were sent to the County Clerk and Comptroller's Office, which issues all payments on behalf of the county.

"Our staff has been working hard to ensure that this money gets in the hands of our citizens quickly, but we also worked diligently to make sure that only the individuals who qualified were on the receiving end of this allocation," Long said.

Applicants who see that the status of their application is "complete" but have not received a check yet might be waiting on the clerk's office to process the payment.

Escambia County Clerk and Comptroller Pam Childers told commissioners last week that her office was working to get the checks out as quickly as possible.

But, she said, they also were getting reports of fraud through the program.

"We are getting hit with a lot of fraud," Childers said. "It's Christmas time. A lot of CARES Act checks. A lot (of calls about fraud), I mean to the point Bank of America is calling me personally at home. We're getting hit, but they're seeing it throughout the nation." 

Childers said her office is receiving daily calls from banks to verify that checks are legitimate, although she didn't say how many of the checks were being flagged. She added that the reason for the calls varies, but staff have received calls about things like duplicated checks.

She said the county did raise control measures on the checks so banks will call them about suspicious activity.

"We have certain controls in place," Childers said. "We have heightened controls with the bank looking at things and calling us."

On top of that, her office and the rest of the county are getting calls from people who are wondering about where their grants checks are, and according to County Administrator Janice Gilley, some are taking it too far.

"Clara (Long) has had folks, for lack of a better term, threaten her personally, and that is just not acceptable," Gilley told commissioners Thursday. "So I want to let you know that we will not be tolerating that."

County Commissioner Lumon May said it's unfair for people to target county staff and commended the employees for the work he has personally seen them do to process the grants.

"I can say from your assistants down to our summer youth workers, they have worked tirelessly, 10 to 12 hours a day," May said speaking to Gilley. "I come down on Saturdays, they're here. They come down on Sundays, they're here. They're working 10 to 12 hours, and some of these people are barely making ends meet themselves, but they're helping other people."

May said he felt the community should be grateful for the work done by county staff in getting the checks out.

"It's unfortunate that some people are not appreciative," May said. "They think that it's a right and not a privilege to receive these funds."

Jim Little can be reached at jwlittle@pnj.com and 850-208-9827.