How Harris County has spent COVID relief funds

A lot of good stuff here.

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.

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15 Responses to How Harris County has spent COVID relief funds

  1. I think Commissioners Court should use some of the remaining ARPA money to construct a new county jail facility. There are currently 9,500 inmates in the Harris County Jail (HCJ), with ~95% of them charged with some type of felony case (under Rule 9, almost all misdemeanor defendants are released from jail on bail bond). Due to the lack of local jail beds, 1,200 HCJ inmates are currently being housed in contract (for profit) jails in North Texas and Louisiana, which is very problematic and expensive.

    When our district criminal courts eventually catch up on the current case backlog, the local jail population should go down as felony defendants flow from the HCJ to TDCJ. Still, Harris County continues to experience significant population growth, but our HCJ capacity has not kept up with this growth. In fact, the 701 N. San Jacinto facility (over 4,000 jail beds) is now 32 years old and will eventually need to be replaced. Rather than ask Harris County voters to approve and pay for another capital improvement tax bond, let’s instead use some of that one-time, federal ARPA money to address one of our long-term, core infrastructure needs (our crumbling county jail system). Once all that ARPA money is spent, we will at least have something to show for our money.

  2. FYI – Sheriff Ed Gonzalez proposed building a new county jail facility last year – see media link below:

  3. Jason Hochman says:

    Trump really destroyed the value of the dollar with all of his give aways. I did report the county to the OIG for the Elevate contract, which, last I heard, wasn’t paid back.

    The county jail is troubled with deaths all of the time, however, building a new jail is futile, because, they fill up as soon as they are built.

  4. Jason, we will soon need to build a new 4,000-bed jail facility just to replace the 32-year-old 701 Jail. That would allow us to simply retain our current county jail housing capacity, not add any new capacity.

    I do understand the “if you build it, they will fill it” argument. Still, ~95% of the current jail population have felony cases (our judges already do a good job releasing lower-risk defendants out on bond). Most of the felony inmates that remain the in jail have extensive criminal histories and/or holds from other jurisdictions (e.g. Blue warrants, Out-of-County, Out-of-State, ICE). We can’t just turn those felony inmates loose because the county jail is full; that’s why we currently have 1,200 HCJ inmates housed in private, for-profit jails.

    As far as the HCJ, I believe the design of a jail facility can make a huge difference in inmate management, inmate supervision, and the prevention of violence inside a jail. The 1200 Baker Street and 701 N. San Jacinto jails were designed with officers sitting behind security glass, with obstructed views, completely separated from the inmates. Due to this poor design, the inmates run the housing units, not the officers. The new JPC, on the other hand, was designed with the officer duty stations located inside the inmate housing units. This direct-supervision design allows officers to proactively prevent inmate fights, theft, vandalism, suicide attempts, etc. and makes our officers immediately accessible to quickly address inmate complaints, requests, notice inmate health issues, etc. I truly believe a new, properly designed jail facility could dramatically improve conditions of confinement inside the Harris County Jail.

    Anyway, the Harris County population has grown to 5 million residents. We will need to build a new jail facility, so it’s really just a question of how we are going to pay for it. I’d rather Commissioners Court use some of the $1.8 billion ARPA dollars for this purpose instead of asking local taxpayers for more money.

    For more on the JPC:

  5. C.L. says:

    Dr. Hochman’s correct [again]! – we should just stop building jails and prisons once and for all.

  6. Manny says:

    Build new jails, hire more deputies to fill the jails, fill the jails, build more jails, then hire more deputies to fill the jails.

    Jason has a point, C.L., you are one happy person.

    Jails are like freeways.

  7. Manny, at a high level, you can argue the incarceration rate in the U.S. is too high. That’s fair. When you look at each inmate in the Harris County Jail, however, who would you release? Our Democratic judges take a good look at each inmate, their current case(s), their criminal history, the risk they pose to the public, etc. and then release on bond everyone they prudently can. The inmates who are not released from jail (9,623 as of today) must still be properly cared for and housed. Under Texas Local Government Code, our Commissioners Court is responsible for providing safe and suitable jails for the county. To that end, they will eventually have to replace the old 701 N. San Jacinto Jail. That building was originally a cold storage warehouse (built in the 1920s) which was later converted into a jail (1991). Commissioners really should tackle this pressing issue before all the $1.8 billion ARPA dollars are gone. If they don’t, local taxpayers will have to foot the bill.

  8. Manny says:

    G.S., you start with the assumption that all or most nonviolent prisoners have been released. Lock everyone up, and crime will disappear.

    But are you sure they could be used for that?

  9. manny says:

    G.S. I would smile if the orange man wore a matching jumpsuit while staring at bars.

  10. Manny, Commissioners could easily apply APRA funds (instead of General Funds) to eligible categories within their existing (and future) county budgets and then use the General Fund savings to build the new jail. The City of Houston just applied their own ARPA funds to eligible categories in their regular budget, so we know it can be done. Local governments already move funds around quite a bit, and they have a lot of latitude in spending ARPA funds.

  11. Manny says:

    If they build the jail in Cypress, Humble, or Spring, I could go with that. Sell the downtown property.

  12. Well, the 701 Jail has 4,000 beds. It’s huge. If we build a 4,000 bed jail out in Atascocita (or wherever), that means the HCSO would have to continuously bus inmates out there for housing, bus several hundred inmates each weekday to/from court, and coordinate transports for inmate releases (buses and vans). Right now, hundreds of inmates just walk between the main jails, the CJC building, and the JPC each day using the secure tunnel system. Having the jails centralized downtown allows the HCSO to easily transfer inmates between the buildings, share staff between the jails (which is huge), and leverage the existing support spaces and services (e.g. main clinic, infirmary, de-tox cells, food services, mental health cells/services, laundry, education staff, commissary staff/storage, etc.). Since all bail bonding, the Inmate Bank, inmate property storage (valuable, bunk, and clothing), and re-entry services are centralized at the downtown JPC, all releases go out thru the JPC. That means all inmates being released from jail would also have to be transported downtown (and a bail bond can post at any time).

    Anyway, all the necessary coordination, planning, and logistics could be worked out. Still, the initial capital cost to build a new jail can pale in comparison to the on-going, annual operational costs. The county would need to assemble a workgroup from all the affected stakeholders (especially the budget folks), identify all the pros/cons, and then determine what the best decision would be on a long-term basis.

  13. Manny says:

    The last one could be changed to be released in the area where the jail is.

    Use more grant money for the additional costs.

    Since Houston residents get no services or very few from the county, especially law enforcement, only fair that other areas get the pleasure of hosting the jail(s).

    I can’t recall when a deputy sheriff or deputy constable appeared to report a crime. I am sure all the logistics of the different police departments working together could be worked out.

  14. True, but then the HCSO would also have to transfer and store all the inmate’s property (valuable, bulk, and clothing) at the new jail so it can be returned to the inmate upon release. That’s a ton of property movement, plus the cost of not adding new property storage space and another Inmate Bank office at the new jail (and staffing those new positions). Note, each time a prisoner’s property is moved, HCSO staff have to make entries into the OMS system to track it and update it’s location (e.g. clothing assigned to a new rack and hook, bulk property assigned a new shelf slot, valuable property assigned a new bin). Anyway, given the huge volume, it get’s problematic.

    Releasing inmates away from the JPC bonding lobby operation also would be a challenge (especially processing paper surety bonds with the prisoner offsite). Also, when people are released from the downtown JPC, they have to walk thru our “gift shop” to get out of the building. The “gift shop” is our Re-entry area, where we proactively offer them access to programs and services. They can also cash their jail debit card at the downtown ATMs.

    Again, I agree with you that everything can be worked out. It’s just a matter of weighing the pros/cons.

    Also, like you, I’d love to see the orange guy wearing orange. That day will come.

  15. Anyway, I’ll move on. No need to keep getting into the weeds on this. I doubt a new jail is on the immediate horizon. We all know that ARPA money is going elsewhere.

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