Lee County receives $135 million from federal CARES Act

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Lee County received $135 million overnight from the federal government, and commissioners have to figure out to spend it.

The money, which is three times the amount of funding received for Hurricane Irma, came as part of the CARES Act, which was responsible for the stimulus money that Americans received.

Lee County’s commissioners will have to figure out where the money can best be used.

“I just want us to study very carefully before we treat it like it’s a printing press we have in the back room somewhere,” said Commissioner Frank Mann.

Lee County can use the stimulus for public health expenses, food stability, and programs for rent, utilities or small businesses, according to Treasury guidelines.

Commissioner Chairman Brian Hamman said Lee County can’t afford to make a mistake with these millions.

“We’re concerned about how to spend it because they said they’re going to come back and audit how you spent it to make sure you spent it correctly,” he said.

“There probably are a couple of areas where spending does make sense, but will we spend all $135 million? I don’t know,” said County Manager Roger Desjarlais.

The commissioners said they’ll look into expanding programs to help people pay for rent and utilities, as well as offering help to small businesses.

What about help for Southwest Florida International Airport? Like many of the nation’s airports, RSW has seen a big drop in business with fewer flights and travelers coming to the area.

“You’re basically talking about 95 percent of our operations have stopped. And obviously we have a significant amount of overhead cost,” said Ben Siegel, executive director of the Lee County Port Authority.

The airport expects only 6.7 million passengers this year, down 3.5 million from last year.

2020 promises to be the worst year since 2004, before the county built the new terminal.

Because revenues are down, the current terminal expansion project is on hold and a hiring freeze is in place.

The Port Authority did secure a $36 million grant from the federal government to help them cover the cost of operation, but it could still take years to return to 2019 levels.

“We’re hopeful that a market like ours, a tourist destination with a lot of families and people visiting their families down here, we may recover a lot quicker,” Siegel said.

The good news is that Siegel said no one has lost their job at the airport, in large part because of the grant money they received to maintain operation.

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