The Wrap: Florida’s major cities gorging on federal grant dollars

by | Aug 1, 2021

Every weekend, we look at the news stories shaping the conversations in Florida’s business, public policy, and political worlds. Here’s this weekend’s Capitolist wrap-up, which we call “The Wrap.”

Florida’s counties aren’t the only governments getting fat on “free” federal cash

Billions of dollars in “free” money has begun to flow into Florida’s cities and counties, courtesy of the federal government’s plan to print money and distribute the cash with minimal oversight in a bid to staunch the economic damage of the coronavirus pandemic. Its official name is the American Rescue Plan, but there won’t be any rescue if we waste the money.

The lion’s share of the cash – more than $4.1 billion – has already been earmarked for each of Florida’s 67 counties, but an additional $1.5 billion, on top of the county dollars, has been allocated for distribution to the state’s metropolitan cities – 77 of them in all. And big questions remain about whether local and county elected officials will invest wisely in long-term economic growth, or squander the cash on pet projects and crony capitalism.

While Florida’s largest cities and counties are divvying up significantly larger portions of the federal pie – Miami Dade County and its eight metropolitan cities will collect more than $842 million in unencumbered federal cash – even some of Florida’s smaller “metro” communities find themselves trying to find ways to wisely invest millions of dollars in cash that they didn’t have before.

Fiscally conservative budget hawks fretting about wasteful spending have every right to be concerned with the federal largesse and the lack of oversight being exhibited. In Leon County, for example, home of the state’s capital in Tallahassee, the budget for 2020 actually increased by several million dollars, thanks in part to federal cash, and a boost in property taxes that wasn’t negatively impacted by the pandemic.

While business and community leaders have been engaged across the state in strategic planning in anticipation of the federal windfall, ultimate responsibility for maximizing the return on investment for the federal cash falls on elected officials, county and city managers and their staffs. It’s one thing to develop a strategic plan, another altogether to execute it on the scale we’re now seeing across the entire state.

In addition to Miami-Dade and its eight metro areas getting $842 million, South Florida’s other major population centers, Broward and Palm Beach Counties, and the 22 metropolitan cities within their respective borders, will spend another $1.034 billion, bringing the grand total $1.877 billion in federal cash.

Palm Beach County officials told The Capitolist’s own Karen Murphy last week that they have a strategic plan to spend the bulk of the windfall on water and environmental projects, and affordable housing projects, but some of the cash will also flow to other strategic priorities, such as broadband access needs that were exposed by school closures and the rapid expansion of online learning programs.

Keeping an eye on Palm Beach County’s spending is daunting enough, but what about the seven cities within Palm Beach County’s borders?  Boca Raton will spend $12.2 million in additional dollars. Boynton Beach is getting $13.6 million. West Palm Beach is getting more than $24.5 million. Even relatively tiny Palm Beach Gardens has to figure out how to spend $5.8 million in federal cash.

In Miami-Dade, the dollar amounts are even bigger, while in nearby Broward County, the dollars amounts are still big but more far-flung, with fifteen different cities getting grants ranging in size from a smallish $8 million in Weston City, to a whopping $38 million for Fort Lauderdale.

And on and on the list goes, spanning far beyond South Florida – every county, and every major city, from the $80.9 million split between Pensacola and Escambia County in Florida’s western panhandle, to $14.4 million for Monroe County in the Florida Keys. In the Tampa Bay metroplex, major cities in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are finding ways to spend $645 million. Just to the east, Polk County and its largest cities, Lakeland and Winter Haven, will get more than $171 million between them.

The numbers are staggering, and budget watchdogs have their work cut out for them.

Will city, county, and even the state government work together to avoid duplicating efforts? Will the state’s individual business communities remain engaged and watchful to ensure each community maximizes the return on investment?  The dollars flowing in, while technically “free” grants from the federal government, aren’t free at all. They are effectively mortgages taken out against future economic growth. If we squander these dollars now and we don’t grow our economy, future generations will pay for our failure to remain vigilant and invest wisely with skyrocketing inflation and the dwindling purchasing power of the American dollar.

We know what must be done, but we have to have the foresight and discipline to do it.

In the coming weeks, we’ll continue to cover this important and unfolding news story as we unpack some of the strategic plans and how those plans are actually implemented as the billions in federal funds are drawn down and disbursed by county and city governments in the coming months.


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