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Travis County bush

County works toward December deadline for CARES expenditures

Wednesday, September 23, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

In just over three months, Travis County will come up against its federally set deadline of Dec. 30 to spend the entirety of its $61.1 million in federal coronavirus relief dollars. As of Sept. 22, the county has spent only 17.2 percent of that allocation – just $2 million more than what the county had spent by the end of August.

Part of that low spend is attributable to the slow ramp-up of the programs rolled out by the county to support residents.

The $10 million rent and mortgage assistance program, in particular, has experienced less traction in the community than previously thought with just under 20 percent of the total allocated dollars spent. The county’s joint response funding commitments with the city of Austin also remain untapped since the two governmental entities are continuing to parse out their individual financial responsibilities when it comes to funding coronavirus response efforts.

Similarly, the $7.3 million in small city grants remains underused, with only 75 percent of the earmarked dollars spent. Of the 21 small cities eligible for funding, 13 have executed interlocal agreements with Travis County, three have declined and five have yet to indicate whether they intend to decline funding or seek an allocation.

Travis County Budget Director Travis Gatlin told the Commissioners Court that the expenditure update on Oct. 15 will be “more meaningful” as the county will close out its current fiscal year and will be better able to identify whether a reallocation of funds from certain programs will be necessary.

County Judge Sam Biscoe said that with the Dec. 30 deadline looming, it’s imperative that the federal funds are spent as quickly and as judiciously as possible. “We’re kind of running out of time to be super-patient,” he said.

Gatlin said staffers anticipate spending the entire $20 million allocated to the county’s direct response efforts. He said he also expects that the TCTX Thrive program will be fully executed by mid-October. As of Sept. 17, 107 small businesses had signed contracts for the program totaling approximately $4.2 million. The county expects to execute the remaining 118 contracts this week.

However, Gatlin said it is likely the dollars reserved for the rent and mortgage assistance programs will not be fully spent by next month. He indicated to the court that this pot of money may present an opportunity to finance a portion of the $21 million in direct response need that has come before the Planning and Budget Office but for which there is currently insufficient funding.

One of the costs that will come to the county is funding for the position of interim health authority that Dr. Mark Escott has held since last October. Sherri Fleming, the county executive with Health and Human Services, told the Commissioners Court that the county will need to help fund a portion of the health authority’s compensation as part of its interlocal agreement for the coronavirus response. “We will certainly be requested to pay our share when the time comes,” she said.

Earlier in the meeting, the commissioners unanimously approved the extension of Escott’s tenure until March 31, 2021. Commissioner Margaret Gómez was not in attendance for the vote.

Escott, who said he has worked 60-80 hours a week on pandemic response efforts, receives no pay for his duties as a public health authority. Instead, his department receives funding to cover his duties as the Austin-Travis County EMS System medical director.

Commissioner Brigid Shea emphasized that paying for Escott’s salary should be a consideration for the Commissioners Court when looking at CARES Act funding reallocations next month.

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