When U.S. Congress passed the CARES Act in March, portions of relief funds were allocated to state and local governments across the U.S. with the caveat that they had to be used by Dec. 31. Any unspent after that would need to be given back to the U.S. Treasury Department.
Of the $427 million allocated to Harris County, only $4 million was not allocated as of the most recent data update Dec. 8. At a Dec. 15 meeting of the Harris County Commissioners Court, Budget Director Dave Berry said the county was on track to have all funds allocated before the end of the year, meaning no money would have to be refunded.
Including money that has already been allocated, the county has identified about $572 million in expenses that the $427 million could end up going toward, Berry said.
"I think we are in as good of shape as we possibly can be," Berry told commissioners. "We have a base plan that uses the $427 million and backup plans should we have any issues."
About $252 million of the county's funding was put into what the budget office refers to as "community programs," including $66 million in direct assistance, $43 million in rent assistance and $49 million in digital infrastructure for students.
Another $162 million was put into public improvement contingency programs, including $28 million in election funding; $8.3 million in employee hazard pay; and $33 million for testing, contract tracing and other public health programs.
At the Dec. 15 meeting, Berry and several precinct commissioners said they are hoping to see more COVID-19 relief funding from the federal government early next year as a part of a new CARES Act injection or federal relief bill.
Many of the remaining unspent funds are being directed to a direct assistance program designed to help residents affected by the coronavirus with a wide variety of needs, including rent, food and health care needs. The county has put more than $96 million into the program since this spring, including a $30 million allocation before the CARES Act was passed.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis noted around 700,000 people have applied to the program since it was first launched, suggesting there are still many unmet needs in the county.
"I hope additional money is coming," he said.
Commissioners also voted to renew an agreement with the Houston Food Bank at the Dec. 15 meeting. The partnership—which gives Harris County residents access to free boxes of food—will now run through June 30, and the county will also contribute another $5 million to its efforts, bringing the total contribution to $9.3 million.
The county will make a one-time purchase of 1.92 million pounds of food in addition to covering the cost of labor to 4.32 million pounds of food per month for the next six months, according to a Precinct 1 press release.
“We are seeing levels of need for food assistance higher than ever before, and to ensure that all who need help receive it, Houston Food Bank, in turn, needs help,” Houston Food Bank President Brian Greene said in a statement. “As some previous programs supporting food banks end, we know the new year will bring further challenges, but this important partnership will help us to provide food for better lives.”