Pinellas County Commissioners decided Tuesday how to spend $10.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding designated for nonprofits, which led to ardent debate over who made the cut.
The discourse centered on two applicants – the African People’s Education and Defense Fund (APEDF) and the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg. The Pinellas Community Foundation (PCF), hired to analyze and rank applications, placed APEDF fourth out of 19 applicants and recommended giving the parent nonprofit of a Black radio station $67,327 for a backup generator.
The APEDF operates 96.3 WBPU-FM, or Black Power 96. However, it shares a home with the controversial Uhuru Movement, an African Socialist group with a long history in St. Petersburg.
Assistant County Administrator Kevin Knutson began the meeting by noting that county staff withdrew the APEDF, YMCA and Evara Health’s previously approved applications. While they put the latter two organizations back on the list, the Education and Defense Fund lost local ARPA dollars for the second time in five months.
“They (PCF) pointed out – just like us – that they had some concerns about whether this grant was for the sole benefit of the organization,” Knutson said. “And that’s part of what really calls into question whether we’re going to meet the federal guidelines on this.”
The $10.5 million approved Tuesday stems from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Nonprofit Capital Project Fund. PCF began dispersing the $19 million total allotment on the county’s behalf in November 2022.
Officials split the funding rounds according to the project size and amount requested. The commission voted to revoke $36,000 from the station in February after Commissioner Chris Latvala questioned its ties to the Uhurus.
The backup generator is for the APEDF headquarters at the Uhuru House on 18th Avenue S. in St. Petersburg. In addition to the nonprofit and political organization, the facility houses a commercial kitchen and a radio station.
According to the APEDF’s application – and dozens of public speakers from as far away as Michigan – the federal funding would have ensured that WBPU-FM could continue broadcasting emergency alerts to South St. Pete residents during a storm. The generator would also prevent food from spoiling during power outages.
Public speakers also noted that the APEDF and Uhuru House provide community health events, a gym and space for public forums. The application states that the nonprofit planned to buy a backup generator before the pandemic caused donations and revenue to plummet.
Despite the application receiving the fourth-highest score and seemingly meeting federal and county guidelines, administrators decided that the project “will not directly counteract the effects of Covid-19.”
FBI agents raided the Uhuru House in July 2022 over alleged connections to a Russian propaganda and election interference scheme. A federal grand jury indicted four Uhuru members in April.
APEDF attorney Luke Lirot denounced the “political controversies that were brought in beyond what we’re talking about here today.” He also noted the nonprofit’s request was much lower than many other organizations.
The St. Petersburg Free Clinic received $3 million to expand and renovate its food bank.
“My clients fulfilled every single criterion,” Lirot said. “They established their independence. And they established beyond any doubt that – as a nonprofit organization – they suffered dramatically from the Covid pandemic.
“I can assure you that if we end up in a big fight about this, you’re going to spend a lot more than you would give them at the end of the game anyway.”
Undeterred, commissioners approved the updated approval list without commenting on the APEDF’s removal. However, Commissioner Renee Flowers did express her displeasure with the YMCA receiving $1.35 million to support construction of a new facility.
That project is a 111,757-square-foot complex anchored by the Speer YMCA and a new magnet middle school for 600 students. The 19-acre campus is off 62nd Avenue NE in St. Petersburg.
The YMCA is paying $21.6 million, with the Pinellas County School board contributing $26.3 million. Flowers noted that YMCA officials previously assured the board that a private donation would cover their costs.
She said the organization has since taken a $12 million loan and requested $5 million in county ARPA funding. PCF recommended a $1.35 million grant, which administrators withdrew “because the applicant has substantial established resources and the demonstrated financial impact was not as great as others.”
In addition, Flowers said the project did not meet program criteria. However, Knutson said he reinstated the recommendation after further conversations with commissioners and staff.
Flowers relayed that the YMCA closed its Harbordale location and drastically reduced programming at its Child’s Park facility, both located on the city’s south side. She also said it used statistics and demographics from those areas in funding applications.
“There’s no way that African American families from South St. Petersburg are going to go to Speers over in the Riviera area,” she added. “I can’t support taking services out of my community to provide funding and service in another.”
David Jezek, president of the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg, blamed the pandemic for closing the Harbordale location and denied any programming changes in Childs Park. He also noted that the organization is $9 million short of the project cost, despite “significant gifts” and a $12 million bridge loan.
Jezek called the Child’s Park facility one of the most active and invited Flowers to visit during typical operating hours. He also offered to discuss her concerns privately.
“I’m very pleased with the YMCA, and I’m very pleased with their application,” said Commissioner Kathleen Peters. “I would like to see us fund them at the rate they’re at.”
Commissioner Charlie Justice said he and his colleagues might change the process if they could go back in time. However, he noted the funding is to provide economic relief in the pandemic’s wake rather than getting bogged down in debate.
He also took a minute to celebrate the organizations on the recommended list. Those include the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, Pinellas Ex-offender Reentry Coalition (PERC), Hope Villages of America and the Florida Dream Center, “which will be transformational for the work they do in Lealman and throughout Pinellas.”
“Lots of great local organizations are getting some support,” Justice said after the meeting. “Which will bolster their important work in our community.”