They came to listen and provide a timeline for action, but final decisions for spending more than $700 million in federal disaster relief dollars are months away.

Representatives of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity made a stop in Port St. Joe last week, conducting a workshop for public input on disbursing $735 in disaster relief Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds.

With the publication of the Federal Registry last month, allocating Department of Housing and Urban Development funds for disaster relief in Florida, the process moved to the FDOE and its Rebuild Florida program.

The program was established in 2018 to allocate federal funds to assist in the long-term recovery of natural disasters; the program is already administering funds for Hurricanes Hermine, Matthew and Michael.

Last week’s workshop was one of a series the FDEO is holding in the HUD-designated counties most impacted by Hurricane Michael: Gulf, Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Jackson, Liberty, Wakulla and Washington.

“These give us information we wouldn’t normally have,” said Reginald Dixon with FDEO. “We have ideas but the more people the more ideas. We take these ideas back to form an action plan.

“These funds were designed to come later, to address remaining unmet needs after insurance and FEMA. We know help is needed and that’s our priority.”

And if there remain unsettled insurance claims when the CDBG funds arrive, those funds may be used upfront and recovered once insurance claims are settled, Dixon said.

Dixon said the agency is effectively looking at three large buckets for funds allocation under what will be a competitive grant program for local counties and municipalities.

Most prominently housing, but supporting housing brings in infrastructure and economic development.

“Our task is to make our action plan broad enough so that what we will be doing will align with the individual county needs,” Dixon said, noting that 80 percent of the HUD funds must be spent in the HUD-designated counties.

Once the plan is published, and it is due by June 1, there will be a 30-day public comment period.

After FDEO reviews and responds to public comment, the plan will be submitted to HUD within 45 days following its publication.

“Once we have a grant agreement with HUD, we are going to move,” Dixon said. “The timeline will be quick once we have that grant agreement.

“We can’t do things out of order. It is not state procurement but it is a competitive grant process.”

Dixon added that the grant process is “easy” and said the county will have “the same level of access as any county.”

Housing consumed the most focus and discussion during the 90-minute workshop inside the packed Port St. Joe City Commission meeting chambers.

Dixon said that due to the source of the funds, there will be some income requirements for housing dollars for a specified period and those dollars are intended to “help folks struggling.”

A component of the plan will include attempting to restore rental properties with rents proximate to that before the storm, Dixon said, saying the agency would base those decisions on market research as well as data from FEMA and the Small Business Association (SBA).

“We will do what we can to restore the housing stock and make it more resilient,” Dixon said. “We want to restore rentals to those who lost it but not just to build stock.

“We have to analyze the market and determine what is affordable. The focus is repair and replacement. We do not do new construction and we consider new construction is something that wasn’t there before.”

But, Dixon noted, the FDEO action plan must also account for infrastructure and economic development to support the housing.

Economic development, he added, is the hardest nut to crack because of job creation requirements linked to federal dollars.

Another goal of the FDEO action plan is to work with other state and federal agencies to make the dollars provide a larger impact.

And he said the FDEO is examining methods for assisting local counties and municipalities with grant requirements for matching funds, a key focus for the Board of County Commissioners.