Friday, May 1, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

Council looks to assemble blueprint for federal Covid-19 assistance dollars

City Council is expected to lay down the guidelines next week for how to use money handed over from the federal government to assist with prevention and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Council Member Ann Kitchen is among the city leaders working to assemble the blueprint for how to deploy money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and other federal programs allocating resources to state and local governments.

To date, the city has used existing local programs and emergency budget reserves to address public health needs and provide assistance to residents and small businesses, but the federal dollars will soon be available to reimburse those costs and spin up new programs.

Kitchen said the city has responded to immediate needs on a case-by-case basis to provide resources where most needed. With the buffet of smaller programs contained within the CARES Act offering more options for assistance and public health needs, she said it is important to look at the “whole universe” of options for how to best use the federal aid.

“We want to be sure we look at this from a holistic perspective so that instead of just doing it piecemeal … we’ve had to respond immediately and had staff jump in to designate dollars and impact certain needs,” she said. “As we continue to do that we need to step back and understand what is the bigger picture to understand how we’ll address and prioritize our needs and leverage different funding sources so that we pay for the right things out of the right pot to best use the dollars.”

The resolution that is expected to be considered May 7 will be a directive to staff rather than a budget amendment. The plan is to give city staff the framework and priorities for how best to use the federal aid, with a subsequent plan that will lead to specific budget actions.

Kitchen and other Council members seem to be in agreement that taking steps to protect vulnerable populations in nursing homes and assisted living facilities as well as the area’s homeless population is a top concern, along with continuing and expanding aid to economically damaged residents and small businesses. Still unknown is what amount or form of comprehensive state aid may be available to local governments, but Kitchen said the city will move forward to meet local needs and address the question on state aid later.

“As we move toward recovery we know we have got to protect our most vulnerable populations because they’re at the most risk and also because they impact the spread in the whole community,” she said. “That includes our nursing home residents, homeless individuals and folks who are essential workers that are exposed to risk.”

With Council receiving briefings recently on the need to continue large-scale social distancing programs and other preventive measures, or else risk as many as five more shelter-in-place actions and more than 6,000 local deaths, Council Member Greg Casar said public health measures to contain the virus have to come ahead of economic relief efforts.

“I support immediate relief and grants to small businesses – we will never be able to save many of our small businesses if we have four more lockdowns and thousands more deaths because we didn’t deal with beating the virus,” he said. “Defeating the virus will alleviate so many other issues, and then we can designate CARES dollars to alleviate small businesses and give relief to people, but the baseline has to be protecting public health.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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