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Local governments scramble to spend CARES dollars by Dec. 30—and keep up with COVID services in 2021
As Congress continues to negotiate the terms of another coronavirus relief bill, local and state officials are focused on a different task: spending the money allocated in the last one.
The CARES Act, a bipartisan bill that was signed into law in late March, provided more than $2 trillion in assistance, including millions of dollars to local city and county governments. But it must be spent by Dec. 30—or be returned to the U.S. Treasury Department.
This has proven challenging for many government entities, which will still need to provide assistance to renters, grants to small businesses and free COVID testing to residents.
"For us, there's a lot of concern," Williamson County Treasurer Scott Heselmeyer told Austonia. "This pandemic (is) not going to be over on Dec. 30."
A temporary fix
When the CARES Act was passed more than nine months ago, it was intended to serve as a stopgap.
"The approach was, 'Look, let's make sure that we're providing funding to bridge this gap between shutdowns that are happening now … to the time when we can reopen,'" said Vance Ginn, who was serving the Office of Management and Budget at the White House when the act was passed. He is now chief economist at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in downtown Austin.
The Dec. 30 deadline was established for a number of reasons, Ginn said: to ensure the federal relief program would be temporary, to avoid incentivizing states to stay shut down longer than they would have otherwise and to allow room for incoming members of Congress to take up future relief bills, given the November election.
Congress Avenue during the shutdown earlier this year.(Charlie Harper III/Austonia)
"There was so much uncertainty at that time that there wasn't a good assurance of how much money should be provided or when it should end," Ginn said.
Now that the deadline is looming—and lawmakers continue to negotiate a follow-up relief bill—there is growing support for an extension, which would allow governments to spend their CARES Act dollars after Dec. 30.
This is generally uncontroversial and has bipartisan support, Ginn said.
It could also prove helpful on the ground in Austin, where Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has reportedly left around $2 billion of the state's CARES dollars unspent and local governments are scrambling to allocate their own.
The city of Austin received nearly $171 million in CARES Act funding, which was intended for necessary expenditures incurred by the pandemic, according to an April presentation by Intergovernmental Relations Officer Brie Franco.
As of Sept. 30, the city had spent around $101 million of its allocation, according to a spokesperson.
Some of this funding paid for new pandemic-era hires, such as epidemiologists, contact tracers and strike force teams, which have helped respond to clusters at long-term care facilities and schools. Austin City Council also approved a resolution in October that allocated $15 million in CARES Act funding to music venues and other businesses deemed vital to the local culture.
A city spokesperson did not provide an update as to how much it has spent since then but said it would disburse any remaining dollars by Dec. 30.
Travis County received just over $61 million in CARES Act funding. As of Nov. 10, it has spent nearly 78% of its allotment, including more than $23 million in reimbursement payments to small cities. This is a significant increase compared to Oct. 9, when it had only spent around 43%.
A planning and budget analyst wrote that the county expects "to fully expend its allotment of the Coronavirus Relief Funds by Dec. 30" in a Nov. 10 memo to the Commissioners Court.
Neighboring Williamson County received more than $93 million in CARES Act funds, of which it projects it will spend around $61 million by Dec. 30.
Heselmeyer is hopeful that Congress will approve an extension before the deadline.
"We have plenty of money," he said. "They just didn't give us enough time."
If Congress fails to deliver, Williamson County will scramble to spend the dollars quickly—likely on reimbursements to area schools for pandemic-related expenses—to avoid forfeiting them.
But Heselmeyer said it would be better spent in 2021, when it could be used for continued renter and small business assistance as well as for vaccine distribution events.
"The problem we have right now is, I can't pay someone's January rent," he said. "There is a continuing need we can't meet."
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Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced a record-setting second quarter during an earnings call broadcasted from the Giga Texas construction site in Southeast Travis County on Monday.
The electric carmaker reported more than $1 billion in quarterly net income and the production of more than 200,000 vehicles for the first time despite challenges such as a global semiconductor shortage.
"It … seems that public sentiment towards electric vehicles is at an inflection point, and at this point, I think, almost everyone agrees electric vehicles are the only way forward," Musk said.
Exterior shots taken just a while ago of Giga Texas (while @elonmusk is reportedly at the Gigafactory!) during today's earnings call!
Hope @peterdog15 got to catch the technoking in his video! #fastestinhistory #Tesla pic.twitter.com/WqeDlb5wU3
— Austin Tesla Club (@AustinTeslaClub) July 26, 2021
Despite rising consumer demand and adequate factory capacity, Tesla faces what Musk described as a "quite serious" global semiconductor shortage, which will determine the company's growth rate for the rest of the year.
With increased revenue and production, Tesla is investing in new factories, Chief Financial Officer Zachary Kirkhorn said. These include Giga Texas, the $1.1 billion manufacturing plant that broke ground last summer and is slated to open later this year.
The Giga Texas factory in Southeast Travis County has rapidly increased in size since ground broke last August. (Tesla)
Musk commended the construction team for "incredible progress," transforming what was basically a vacant site into "a mostly complete large factory a year later."
I was at Giga Texas yesterday. Team is making excellent progress. Building will be almost a mile long when complete.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 25, 2021
Giga Texas will produce the highly anticipated Cybertruck, along with other models, but Musk said scaling its production will be difficult, especially given the supply chain delays caused by the pandemic. "It's going to move as fast as the slowest of its up to 10,000 unique parts," he said.
In other news, Musk said Monday's earnings call would likely be his last regular appearance, only jumping on future quarterly calls when big announcements warrant it.
Tesla Solar recently made news when it announced plans to build the nation's most sustainable residential community in Southeast Austin earlier this month. The newly built homes will feature Tesla solar roof tiles and Powerwall battery storage as well as electric vehicle charging stations.
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The city of Austin released a shortlist of seven candidates for the police chief position left vacant when Brian Manley retired in March.
City Manager Spencer Cronk hopes to announce an appointment by the end of August, which will require City Council approval.
The finalists, chosen from a field of 46 applicants, include:
- APD Interim Chief Joseph Chacon, who previously served as an assistant chief in the department for almost five years
- Anne Kirkpatrick, former police chief in Oakland, California, who was fired last year after a federal monitor criticized her handling of a fatal 2018 police shooting of a homeless man
- Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Avery L. Moore, who is a 30-year veteran of the department
- Atlanta Police Department Deputy Chief Celeste Murphy, who manages the department's community services division
- Dekalb County Police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who previously served as division chief in the Miami-Dade Police Department
- Wichita Police Department Chief Gordon Ramsay, who is a former president of the Minnesota Police Chief's Association as well as one of the first police chiefs of a major U.S. City to call George Floyd's death a murder, as reported by the Wichita Eagle
- Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Emada E. Tingirides, who is also commanding officer of the department's newly formed Community Safety Partnership Bureau, which serves L.A.'s underserved communities
City staff will interview the finalists in the coming weeks, with several community input opportunities to come, according to a Monday press release.
The city conducted a public survey in March and hosted community input meetings in April to learn more about what residents are looking for in their next police chief, which helped shape the selection criteria for the position.
"They want to see the Chief be reform-minded and transparent and have a track record of fostering community involvement and accountability," Cronk said in the release. "The candidates selected show these characteristics in various ways."
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Days after Austin began once again recommending masks in public spaces, Austin ISD announced Monday that kindergarten through sixth-grade classes will have virtual options this fall.
The district will discuss the move in a special board meeting Monday evening starting at 5 p.m., while full details will be released Friday.
Teachers will not have to fret about the new option—no educators will have to juggle both virtual and in-person learning. Instead, certain teachers will specialize in virtual education, according to a press release.
The news comes after a recent spike in COVID cases in Travis County and across the nation. Children typically suffer fewer symptoms of COVID when contracted, but they are now catching the virus more often than their older counterparts without a vaccine available to them and as the more contagious Delta variant is quickly being spread.
While local health officials are recommending everyone wear masks, public school districts are unable to mandate masks due to an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in May.
Parents have expressed concern about classrooms with masks unenforceable and children under the age of 12 ineligible for a vaccine. Some have even said they would look for alternative schooling if AISD did not offer a virtual option for students.
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