Guest opinion: County’s lack of accountability, transparency impacts trust
During this unprecedented time, the Lee Board of County Commissioners (and its Administration) continues operating as it has for the past 7 years–with a lack of transparency and accountability, and a failure to provide for any meaningful citizen participation in its government.
As the Board decides how to allocate $135 million in COVID-19 federal relief aid intended to cover community-wide expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency (something that 11 other counties in Florida are simultaneously dealing with), we can see in stark relief how much more transparent and accountable other counties are to their citizens.
Lee Future has encouraged citizens to provide input to the Board about how it should spend the $135 M COVID-19 federal funding. As an example of the comments submitted, check out the Women for Better Lee’s May 17th comments, which calls on the County to double COVID-19 funds for child care, as well as directing more funds for mental health, homelessness, and food distribution by nonprofit food banks and pantries.
Lee Future joins Women for a Better Lee in championing an innovative way to provide transparency and accountability for the use of the $135 million federal relief funds. We are jointly advocating that the County use a series of “Dashboards” that track revenues and expenditures for the $135 million federal aid, which citizens can access online 24/7 on the County’s website. Dashboards are one of the “best practices” used by local governments to communicate with its citizens in a transparent and accountable way. Such a systematic approach would give the County a jump start on being ready for the federal government audits to come. In addition, the development and upkeep costs for these “Dashboards” can be covered by the CARES Act funds.
This could be the start of an approach that could be incorporated into the overall operations of the county, expanding the Dashboards that exist on most Department webpages. Lee County citizens deserve data and facts, not spin, on how the County is spending funds on behalf of the taxpayers.
Comments Submitted by
Women for a Better Lee
Comments submitted May 17, 2020 on behalf of the WFBL Steering Committee:
Connie Bennett Martin
Women For a Better Lee is submitting the following comments for the record in advance of the May 19 meeting of the Lee Board of County Commissioners.
The $134.5 million received by Lee County under the CARES Act is sorely needed to help people and businesses who are financially suffering through no fault of their own. According to the April 1, 2020 FGCU Regional Economic Research Institute Coronavirus Economic Impact Survey of businesses in our region, 21% of small businesses surveyed and 17% of larger companies have laid off more than 80% of their employees. Ninety-one percent of small firms reported that demand had decreased and 63% of firms responded that demand had decreased by more than 50%. The setback to our local economy is obviously deep and frightening.
However, these are not just numbers; these are people and businesses who are watching their savings and hard work disappear. These Covid-19 funds can alleviate some – but not all – of the financial stress our community is experiencing; indeed, how we apply these monies will determine our future prosperity.
We recognize that the May 12, 2020 proposals presented to the county commissioners were Phase 1 of what is hopefully a long-term plan to restart our economy and provide relief for Lee County citizens. The initial proposal totaled $50 million of the $134.5 million deposited with the county. Consequently, we are eagerly waiting to learn about the proposed apportioning of the remaining monies.
Our comments focus on two areas of concern to Women For a Better Lee:
1. More funds should be directed to helping with child care costs and human services, such as mental health, homelessness and food distribution by nonprofit food banks and pantries.
Of particular concern is the paltry proposed allocation of $3.5 million to assist with child care expenses. We urge the county to at least double this amount.
As reported by both The Washington Post(May 9, 2020) and The Wall Street Journal (May 16, 2020), this pandemic has disproportionately impacted womenbecause female workers are heavily concentrated in personal contact fields, especially hospitality and restaurants, the very foundation of our local economy. In April, the unemployment rate for women was 16.2% (for men: 13.5%). Getting women back to work is crucial to restarting businesses in Lee County.
Yet, since child care usually falls to the woman in the family, many cannot return to work because schools will be out at least until August, if not beyond. We encourage the county to at least double the $3.5 million it is proposing to help with child care expenses. Over the past months, many families, with no or reduced earnings, combinedwith some women having to stay at home to care for children, have been unable to pay their bills and have incurred large and unexpected debts. With schools closed, families have to make unanticipated – and costly — child care arrangements if both parents must work. And, as a result of Covid-19, many families have drained the accumulated savings they would otherwise use to pay for their children to attend camp or other child care arrangements during the summer months. Moreover, as a result of Covid-19, some women who have previously stayed home will now be looking for employment to help get their families on a sounder financial footing and will need to secure child care as a consequence.
Government funds are intended to help those impacted by Covid-19and its effects as they ripple through our community today and the foreseeable future. Because Lee County’s economyis heavily dependent on tourism/hospitality, the slow summer season will only exacerbate need. Support for families requiring assistance with child care can include vouchers to parents, direct payments to child care providers and facilities, underwriting salaries of new hires, sanitizing classrooms, funding PPE for all child care workers, help with screening children for the virus, and/or paying to extend hours of child care businesses, thereby enabling workers to take advantage of overtime or work off hours should they be available.We encourage the county to tap the expertise and experience of the Early Learning Coalition of SW Florida, the county’s Parks and Recreation Departmentand other child activity providersfor additional ideas and implementation of these proposals.
Generally, the funds proposed for human services such as homelessness and mental health are too small to make much of a dent in the need caused by the pandemic. As we have heard from the homeless community, the number of shelter beds is totally inadequate. We did not see any proposal for assistance to those seeking mental health therapies resulting from Covid-19 stress and anxiety, and encourage the county to consider directing funds to this area. Furthermore, we strongly urge the county to support the incredible work of our local food banks and pantries in offering food to the increasing number of hungry people in the county.
2. Equity, transparency and accountability on the part of the county are paramount.
Of critical importance in disbursing these monies is a commitment to equity and impartiality. Transparency in the disbursement process and accountability on the part of those charged with distributing the funds will ensure fairness and indicate to the community that the county’s administrators and elected leaders are not favoring one group over another.
Unfortunately, the county has a rather poor record in the area of transparency. For example, the Fiscal Year 2019-2020 budget currently posted on the www.leegov.com website is a 21-page summary instead of the traditional, detailed document that sets out specific spending and revenue for the county. This failure to reveal such details to residents – whose dollars these are – is troublesome, to say the least. It is almost as if the county does not want interested citizens to know how their money is being spent.
The county needs to do better in this area– especially as it determines where $134.5 million is to be apportioned.
Rather than one appointed oversight committee, Women For a Better Lee is proposing that the county enable community-wide oversight by developing a series of dashboards that track revenue and expenditures and which citizens can access online 24/7.
These dashboards would track all Covid-19 funds received (and yet to be received) and disbursed,and would include:
- To whom, the purpose and amount of grants made;
- A monthly summary by expenditure of funds (showing the difference between total amount available and where we are to date);
- Reporting on how many people/households and businesses have been assisted;
- A countdown clock to track how much of the funds have been encumbered.
Via a simple pie chart graphic, for example, one dashboard could report on each sector receiving funding, i.e., rent/mortgage and utility assistance; the purchase and distribution of PPE; relaunch of businesses; childcare support and allocations to other jurisdictions, county government expenditures, and public safety, among other categories. Such a systematic approach would, of course, help with preparations for any future audit undertaken by the federal government. Lastly, development and upkeep costs for the dashboards can be covered by the CARES Act funds.
In fact, the dashboards could be one element of a comprehensive Covid-19 information package on the county’s website. One good example of a one-stop shop for such information can be found at www.tamarac.org/1108/coronavirus-information-resources.
Finally, ClearPointStrategy, ( www.clearpointstrategy.com ), a well-known developer of software for local government use, offers design and development of dashboards for just this purpose and we urge you to look at what the firm has to offer.
While Women For a Better Lee disagrees with the amounts proposed in Phase 1 (we believe that sums set aside for important sectors are too low and other areas totally ignored) we are in general agreement with the direction that the county is going – helping financially impacted individuals with their financial needs and relaunching the small businesses that are the backbone of our local economy. Of course, the devil lies in the details and we willawait further clarification of the county’s plans as it moves forward before commenting further.
Women For a Better Lee is a movement led by women and comprised of Lee County voters who seek good governance, smartly-planned growth and a more livable community.
To get on their mailing list, email: WFBL2020@gmail.com; Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/WomenForABetterLee