On Tuesday, the Volusia County Council will reflexively pass the 56th extension of the State of Local Emergency related to the Coronavirus pandemic.
And, if history repeats, it will accept another massive infusion of federal funds under the ever-expanding COVID-19 response and relief umbrella. . .
The local emergency declaration was originally passed in March 2020 and gave extraordinary powers to County Manager George Recktenwald and then Chairman Ed Kelley to make unilateral decisions in the early days of the public health emergency.
Let’s just say our tried-and-true emergency management protocols did not work as planned.
In fact, the wheel came off the proverbial cart when some council members felt their contributions were being overshadowed – resulting in contradictory social media statements and stilted press conferences – punctuated by hysterical manifestos by a few elected officials demanding the immediate closure of all parks, beaches, recreation facilities – and urging “shutting down businesses completely for two-weeks. . .”
The fact is it would be unthinkable for a politician to let a good crisis go to waste without an opportunity to grandstand – an operational certainty during any emergency – which resulted in spit-spats and finger pointing as “colleagues” began calling each other out for failing to act with sufficient panic-stricken overreach.
Historians will write tomes about the abject buffoonery, one-upmanship, and political cowardice that marked the early days of the pandemic.
I lost interest in the State of Local Emergency about the 14th extension.
How about you? Was it the 5th or the 35th?
Regardless, the concept is now meaningless – nobody cares anymore – except those number crunchers in the bowels of the Thomas C. Kelly Administration Building who shovel the enormous influx of federal funds into the gaping maw of this outsized bureaucracy.
Last year, the federal government allocated $96.5 million in CARES Act funds to Volusia County.
Of that, some $21 million went to Daytona “International” Airport, while $15 million was doled out to the municipalities. By December 2020, it was reported that “…$19 million has been spent on rental and mortgage assistance and about $1.6 million has been approved and will soon go out.”
In my view, things took a weird turn when Volusia County announced it would be spending CARES Act funds to renovate the former New Smyrna Beach Courthouse Annex – something described by Facilities Director Jim Corbett as the “fastest-moving project” he had ever seen.
Oddly, the original cost of the contract mushroomed from $377,464 to a whopping $996,170 – with County Manager Recktenwald explaining that change orders are normally spread over the course of a job, but this time, the elected officials were getting them all at once.
How can a contractor anticipate change orders before the first nail has been driven?
When several sitting councilmembers questioned the massive price hike – they were mollycoddled into acquiescence with the bureaucratic lullaby, “unforeseen site conditions and upgrading the facility to current Florida building codes, yada, yada, yada. . .”
Why the rush?
Because the use of federal CARES Act funds required that permits be in hand no later than the last day of 2020.
Is it just me, or does anyone else think renovating a county-owned building using federal funds earmarked for a public health crisis is contrary to the programmatic goals of pathogen control and community economic recovery?
Trust me – the questions surrounding how the tsunami of federal relief dollars is being acquired and spent isn’t limited to county government.
Last week, Mark Harper wrote an interesting piece in The Daytona Beach News-Journal entitled “Who got federal PPP loans? Were they needed?”
In an interesting quote from our High Panjandrum of Political Power, we got a brief glimpse into the mindset of some local companies in the early days of the crisis:
“Mori Hosseini, president of ICI Homes, acknowledged that home builders ended up doing well in Florida in 2020. But he said that trend wasn’t clear in the first months after the pandemic hit a little more than a year ago and business for everyone slowed for a time.
“The year ended up being pretty good, but we didn’t know (when the pandemic first hit),” Hosseini told The News-Journal on Friday. “Many, many companies immediately laid off people. We decided not to lay off anybody. The culture of our company, we didn’t let people go. So when the opportunity came (for PPP funds), we grabbed it.”
Hosseini also pointed out that his Daytona Beach-based company, which builds homes across Florida, pays millions of dollars in taxes every year.”
This phenomenon of “grabbing” federal funds before demonstrating a need is clearly not limited to the private sector.
In the late 1990’s I saw local governments across the state of Florida engage in a kleptocratic feeding frenzy when the tobacco settlement showered millions of dollars on dubious youth smoking enforcement and prevention programs – funds that paid for totally unrelated public programs and projects, and supplemented overtime payments for police officers who drove around aimlessly trying to catch Little Johnny Jones puffing a Marlboro behind the corn crib. . .
There is a unique dynamic that occurs whenever our government fills a trough with cash – then removes the normal checks and balances that deter waste, fraud, and abuse – almost a mob mentality where rules and mores no longer apply.
Having studied crowd control theories during my professional life, I can tell you that in the early life cycle of a mob – the members lose their sense of individuality and humanity – and become susceptible to emotion, fearmongering, and suggestion as the “collective mind” takes over.
Do the same motivations and psychological drivers apply to government and industries who, by all indicators, not just survived the pandemic but thrived during the economic downturn?
According to Mr. Harper’s informative report, “…some 343 building and construction firms in Volusia and Flagler counties received $23 million in PPP loans to help support just over 2,000 jobs.”
Yet, “…across Florida, building permits were up 30% in 2020 over the previous year,” and “…new home sales across Florida were up more than 20% over 2019. And 483 real-estate industry firms in Volusia and Flagler counties were recipients of PPP loans totaling about $15 million to support nearly 1,600 workers.”
Nothing about this corporate gluttony made sense to me, then I read on a construction industry website an explanatory article on forgivable PPP “loans” that began, “It’s not as good a deal as free money, but it’s pretty close. . .”
Like I said, this week the Volusia County Council will do two things of substance – both of which will go virtually unnoticed by those who have become desensitized through repetition:
Our elected officials will vote to accept some $2,741,015 in grant funds under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act – specifically earmarked “…for costs related to operations, personnel, cleaning, sanitization, janitorial services, combating the spread of pathogens at the airport, and debt service payments,” essentially anything that can be remotely correlated to combating the spread of COVID-19 at Daytona “International” Airport.
Then, they will approve the 56th extension of the State of Local Emergency.
With millions of dollars in “free money” being lavished on local governments, many of which have seen little, if any, loss of revenue – and area businesses finding it impossible to hire employees now that individual “stimulus” checks, eviction prohibitions, and assistance programs are flowing freely – many are contemplating the long-term impacts this massive federal largesse will have on all levels of our economy.
If history repeats, I suspect the gorge-until-the-teat-goes-dry mindset will hold until the damage becomes too great to ignore.
God help us.