Plugging budget holes that the pandemic left behind, improving safety and hardening local health care infrastructure are among the ways Texas counties have been using game-changing amounts of pandemic relief dollars provided by the federal government.
Last year, the federal government earmarked $5.7 billion of $65.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to Texas' 254 counties. The dollars were allocated in two portions – the first half in May 2021 and the second half in May 2022.
As county commissioners courts have been considering how to use the money during the past year and a half, their actions have shown that Texas counties are using it to directly benefit residents. To ensure they are making the best decisions, some counties have sought third-party consultants to help them divvy up the money. Federal officials have allowed funds to be spent on uses as diverse as public health responses to the pandemic, water and sewer infrastructure, aiding economic recovery, replacing lost revenue and providing premium pay for essential workers.
In Guadalupe County, $32.5 million in ARPA funding is being used to accommodate explosive population growth.
"It's not just a little bit of money. It's a big deal," said Guadalupe County Judge Kyle Kutscher. "These dollars give us a real opportunity to provide what the public needs now. It would take us many, many years to accomplish the exact same thing."
Help with population growth
Benefiting from its prime geographic location near Austin and San Antonio, Guadalupe County has seen its population soar from 89,000 in 2000 to about 175,000 in 2020, Kutscher said.
An influx of residents has translated to higher demand for county services.
The county turned to a third-party grant administrator to help manage ARPA spending, determining one of the biggest needs was to shore up fire protection. In the past, each of the county's eight fire departments received about 200 calls for service per year. This year, that number has grown to about 500.
"We're seeing and experiencing all that growth, so one of our biggest challenges is just making sure that we can have a law enforcement officer, a firefighter, or an ambulance go to 911 calls and have a stable, sustainable response that is quick and safe," Kutscher said.
The county is dedicating $12 million to establish at least three emergency response centers, which would house firefighters and other first responders and an ambulance. The centers would also be used as vaccine distribution sites and shelters during harsh weather conditions and would also provide fiber internet connection for residents.
Two of the stations will be jointly funded by the county and cities, which are also using their ARPA funding for the effort.
The county's ARPA funding will also pay for fire engines and equipment, including a dispatch and records management system, and laptops for all first responders and an additional radio tower to improve communication coverage.
"There are challenges that come up with that radio coverage – number of users we have on the system, so we made some great advancements, upgrading and changing to a new system," Kutscher said.
Guadalupe County's only hospital has also received support, a common need in a state that has the highest number of rural hospital closures in the nation. The county has used ARPA funding to help expand the number of beds, and early in the pandemic, the county helped fund off-duty paramedics who worked at the hospital's monoclonal antibody infusion center.
"The hospital was such a close partner with the city and the county that the three acted as our public health authority," Kutscher said. "(The hospital) was involved in everything. They really did a great job."
Forgoing ARPA not an option
Floyd County's ARPA award was $1.1 million, making up about 20% of the county's operating budget. The county has the opposite problem compared with Guadalupe County – its population is declining, so this money ensures the remaining residents are taken care of, Floyd County Judge Marty Lucke said.
"Our main goal is to try to spend it in the most efficient way to benefit our citizens…taking care of them because they're the ones who take care of us," Lucke said.
Lucke said the potential red tape that came with the funding was not enough to reject the money, as a handful of local governments have done nationwide. Lucke said that the county has relied on its treasurer and resources from TAC and the National Association of Counties to help guide officials on how to spend the money, and most recent federal rules have widened the use of the money. Plus, because small counties rely so heavily on grants, officials there are used to red tape.
But to maintain the trust of its residents when it comes to accepting federal funding, county officials have held public meetings about how they plan to spend ARPA funding, as well as impromptu discussions in the community. County commissioners have intentionally separated ARPA spending from the rest of the budget so residents can see how the money is being used.
"(ARPA funding) is still considered taxpayer money," Lucke said.
The county is using about half of its ARPA funding to help their two local cities upgrade their water infrastructure, including improving water storage systems and a lift system, much of which are outdated or damaged.
"If we don't have water in our communities, we're not going to have people," Lucke said.
Other projects include installing optic infrared devices on their law enforcement vehicles, which can also help rescuers better find people during tornadoes or other natural disasters. In a joint effort with the city, the county is also using ARPA funding to retrofit the courthouse grounds with electrical boxes that people can use to plug in food trucks or to power an emergency mobile command unit.
Other possible spending includes road improvements.
The county is still deciding on how to spend the rest of its dollars – about $500,000.
"For a large county, that doesn't sound like a whole lot," Lucke said. "But for us, it's a lot."
TAC County Relations Officers have been your one-stop shop for all your ARPA answers since day one. Connect with them with your ARPA questions, or any other questions, at www.county.org/County-Relations-Officer-Map.