Harris County has received around $1.8 billion in federal aid to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, a staggering sum that provided struggling residents with immediate emergency relief, has kept county services running and is fueling other programs aimed at longer-term results.
While Harris County has obligated roughly two-thirds of its American Rescue Plan Act funding so far, another $323 million is still up in the air ahead of federal deadlines to commit the funding by the end of 2024 and spend it by 2026.
Commissioners Court could move forward with more ARPA-fueled programs at its Tuesday meeting: addressing food insecurity by expanding its program with the food distribution organization Common Market Texas and funding a $1.7 million “teledeputy” program that allows the sheriff’s office to be more efficient by handling some low-level issues over the phone.
The largest chunk of the county’s federal funding has come from $915 million in ARPA state and local fiscal recovery funds. Since 2020, the county has also received $426 million of CARES Act funding, $17 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, $172 million in emergency rental assistance funding and at least $300 million from FEMA, an estimated amount that is still pending final FEMA review.
Harris County’s funds have been deployed for a wide range of uses, from quick relief to longer-term investments.
At first, the county quickly spent around 20 percent of its total ARPA allocation to get through the immediate effects of the pandemic: vaccine incentives, emergency nursing, flexible financial assistance for households, small business grants and court backlog remediation.
Commissioners Court put a plan in motion over two years ago to spend its $915 million ARPA haul, creating a program management office to oversee the funds, approving a list of spending priorities, surveying residents to collect input and setting up a steering committee made up of the chiefs of staff for each of the five members of the court.
The first half of the funding arrived in late May 2021, with the second half following one year later.
To manage its enormous portfolio of ARPA-funded initiatives, Commissioners Court organized spending into four categories: health, housing, jobs and education and county operations.
Some of the big-ticket health items have included $45 million for Harris Health to alleviate long waitlists for colonoscopies and other specialty services, $20 million for a lead abatement program and $14 million for Harris County Public Health’s new ACCESS Harris County program, which provides vulnerable groups with a one-stop-shop coordinated care team.
Among the housing initiatives are a $36 million effort aimed at reducing homelessness, a $15 million program to purchase 100 single-family homes for the Harris County Community Land Trust to preserve long-term affordable housing and a $4 million investment in eviction legal aid services. Another $9 million has helped build the new HAY Center, a project that includes 50 one-bedroom apartments and studios for those exiting the foster care system.
In some instances, Harris County has used ARPA funds to help prop up other community organizations suffering effects of the pandemic, such as BakerRipley’s program providing free tax preparation services to low-to-moderate income residents, which is the largest of its kind in the nation.
As noted in the story, Harris County had a lot more flexibility in how it deployed its COVID funds than the city of Houston was because Houston is far more dependent on sales taxes, which took a huge hit during the pandemic, while property taxes mostly remained stable. Things they piloted will eventually need to be fully funded by the county if they are to continue, but that’s an issue for a later day. In the meantime, there’s a lot of good that can be and has been done. Go read the rest.