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Commissioners approve allocations for remainder of Covid-19 relief funding

Wednesday, July 29, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Nearly three months to the day since Travis County received Covid-19 relief funding from the federal government under the CARES Act, Travis County commissioners approved an outline for the allocation of the $33.8 million in aid that remained unspent.

County staff outlined a proposal at the July 28 meeting of the Commissioners Court to allocate $20 million of the remaining dollars to direct response funding, $8.8 million to joint response public health programs with the city of Austin, $2 million for the Health and Human Services food distribution efforts, and $3 million for other social services administered through HHS.

Although this initial proposal will allow county staff to begin doling out dollars for county services, Diana Ramirez, the director of the county’s Economic Development Department, told commissioners, “We expect that the use of funds will likely change to some extent.” To keep the Commissioners Court and the public abreast of the needs at the county, there will be a monthly update on CARES Act relief dollar disbursements until November. In November and December, the updates will become weekly until the county reaches the federally mandated Dec. 30 deadline for spending the total $61.1 million it received in relief funding.

Ramirez told commissioners that while county staff will begin applying relief funding to the general expenditure buckets that the court approved on Tuesday, the new Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act that Senate Republicans proposed on Monday has the potential to alter the county’s newly approved expenditure plan. In the bill language, which county staffers are currently combing through, she said there may be an opportunity to use federal relief funding to cover revenue shortfalls. She also mentioned a possibility that the deadline to make payments may be extended past the end of this calendar year.

“The devil is in the details,” she said. “But that would be good news if we could cover revenue shortfalls.” Current regulations do not permit local governmental entities to use federal aid from the CARES Act to cover deficits in income, and the county is predicting to come up tens of millions of dollars short this upcoming fiscal year.

Breaking down the summary of spending buckets, Ramirez further explained that out of the $20 million for direct response funding, a percentage will be directed to pay Travis County’s required 25 percent FEMA match. The remainder is intended to cover direct personnel and operating expenditures for public health response. Food service distribution efforts are comprised of an additional $614,000 for the emergency food distribution contract with the Cook’s Nook, with the rest of the funding destined for other undefined food response efforts including support of the Central Texas Food Bank.

The $3 million intended to fund social services, Ramirez explained, will come back to the Commissioners Court for final approval. However, she noted, “We’re really interested in having this funding go to social service programs that already have a pipeline to the Health and Human Services Department.” She said introducing new programs at this time will limit the expeditious spending of federal dollars.

In addition to these newly approved spending programs, the county has approved $7.3 million of direct assistance for small cities within the county, $10 million for small business grants and $10 million for direct mortgage and rental assistance.

While Ramirez anticipates that the county will have no trouble spending the $10 million earmarked for small business grants, she told commissioners that staff members are still waiting for many cities to return their signed interlocal agreements and submit their spending plans to access the $7.3 million. Without that paperwork, funding is not released to smaller municipalities within Travis County.

Sherri Fleming, the county executive with the Health and Human Services division, said it is too early to report on the spending status of the mortgage and rental assistance program. “We have a tremendous response in terms of applications,” she told commissioners, saying that county staff had processed 300 applications as of yesterday. “We expect a continual ramp-up in expenditures in the coming weeks,” she said.

With the areas for spending approved by the Commissioners Court, county staff now have just over five months to empty their coffers of federal aid allocations.

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