In a divided vote, Fort Bend County commissioners May 4 approved a preliminary budget recommendation for the allocation of $157.42 million in American Rescue Plan Act coronavirus relief funds.
The recommendation, which county officials said could change based on future guidance expected from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, was approved in a 4-1 vote, with County Judge KP George voting against it.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan was signed into law in March. According to the Texas Association of Counties, counties can use the funds for several purposes, including responding to the public health emergency and its negative economic effects by providing assistance to households, small businesses, nonprofits or industries hit particularly hard by the pandemic.
The county's preliminary budget recommendation designates $27,000,000 to nonprofit partnerships, including $2,000,000 to the Edison Arts Foundation, $1,000,000 to the Fort Bend Museum Association and $500,000 to Fort Bend Seniors Meals on Wheels.
Representatives from several nonprofits who were not listed to receive funds spoke during the meeting, asking for an opportunity to apply for some of the funding. Among them was Vita Goodell, CEO of the Fort Bend Women’s Center, who said the nonprofit has seen about a 20% increase in the number of people it has served since the pandemic began.
“COVID was hard, has been hard and is continuing to be hard,” she said. “We would really like to advocate for a chance to apply for some of the funds that are coming through Fort Bend County. ... There's a lot of need here; we're able to fulfill it; we’d just like a chance to apply for that.”
Similarly, Shannan Stavinoha, executive director of Parks Youth Ranch, which provides emergency shelter, counseling and services to abused and neglected youth, said the nonprofit's needs also have increased during the pandemic.
“I am not questioning the merit of any of the projects that were outlined or allocated funds; all of them are great organizations that I have come to know and love and support myself,” she said. “However, there are countless social service programs in our community, in Fort Bend County, that were not given the opportunity to apply for or be considered for this funding that we desperately, desperately need.”
Echoing those concerns, George said he was voting against the budget because he did not think the court should dictate which nonprofits should get funds. He suggested the county wait to vote on the budget and instead create a pot of money and allow nonprofits to apply before decisions are made about where to distribute the funds.
“I believe every nonprofit, including those listed and those who we heard here today, they all help and support and protect our our children and our citizens on a daily basis; our office works with them on a daily basis," he said. "So it is not fair.”
In addition, George said he was voting against the preliminary budget recommendation because he thinks more research is needed to determine what items or projects are eligible for funding at all. For example, the preliminary budget has $7,000 earmarked for a build-out for the Justice Center Courtroom, something George said might not actually qualify. Counties can use the federal funds for pandemic-related expenses only, according to the TAC.
“If we approve this [preliminary budget recommendation] as it is, I think it is a big mistake,” George said.
The remaining members of the court voted in favor of the preliminary budget recommendation, however. Precinct 3 Commissioner Andy Meyers said he wanted to make clear that the vote was indicating the court's initial approval and said the county may adjust the budget after receiving additional guidance from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
“As we get guidance from the Treasury Department, and that's coming up in a couple of weeks, I believe this may change as it relates to the action we're taking now,” he said. “And even after that, as the situations, the circumstances change, we may again change. So if you got left out, there's still a possibility that things will be modified.”
Meyers said the county will work to allocate the money fairly.
“This is a moving target for us to say the least,” he said. “We'll do our best to make certain we allocate the money as fairly as we can.”
Counties must spend the funds by Dec. 31, 2024.