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Austin, Travis County work to allocate CARES Act funding by December deadline as Congress deadlocks over new relief bill
(Austin Public Health)

CARES Act funding has helped pay for testing sites in the Austin area.

As Congress faces a stalemate over another possible coronavirus relief package, local and state governments around the country are facing a looming deadline for the last one.

By Dec. 30, they must spend all the federal coronavirus relief dollars they received through the CARES Act, a bipartisan bill that was signed into law in late March and provided more than $2 trillion in assistance. Any unspent dollars must be returned to the U.S. Treasury Department.

At the local level

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 Brie Franco, intergovernmental relations office for the city.

As of Sept. 30, the city has spent more than $101 million of its CARES Act allocation, spokesperson Bryce Bencivengo wrote in an email to Austonia. More than two-thirds of the spending occurred between July and September.

Some of this funding has paid for new pandemic-era hires, such as epidemiologists, contact tracers and strike force teams that have helped respond to clusters at long-term care facilities and schools, Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden said on Sept. 29.

Earlier this month, council members unanimously approved the SAVES Resolution, which allocated $15 million in CARES Act funding to music venues and other businesses deemed vital to the local culture.

Although Congress has not yet developed a relief package that could extend funding into 2021, APH is already planning to continue its COVID response efforts beyond the deadline.

"We understand that the federal funding will end as of December of this year, but we must continue to provide testing and contact tracing, our case investigations, our surveillance and our enforcement," Hayden told City Council. "Those efforts have really helped us as a city and county be in this place that we are in."

At the county level

Travis County received just over $61 million in CARES Act funding. As of Oct. 9, it has spent around 43%, with a remaining balance of more than $34 million to administer in the next 11 weeks.

The largest expense for Travis County has been through its economic development and strategic investments department, which has disbursed nearly $10 million in small business grants.

The bulk of the county's unspent dollars fall under two programs: 1) rent and mortgage assistance and 2) direct response.

With a countywide ban on rental evictions in place through at least the end of the year, staff have recommended that some of the rent and mortgage assistance funding be reallocated toward other causes rather than risk it being returned.

Direct response funding covers direct personnel and operating costs for the county's public health response.

Despite the unspent dollars, Budget Director Travis Gatlin told county commissioners on Tuesday that the county's COVID-related costs are far in excess of the CARES funding it has received.

"We want to spend every dollar as soon as we can because we don't want to take a chance on having to send a dollar back," he said. "We want to keep those funds in the community."

An Oct. 13 presentation by Travis County Budget Director Travis Gatlin shows how CARES Act funding has been allocated. (Travis County)

At the state level

The state of Texas received approximately $8 billion in CARES Act funding and had a similarly broad mandate for how it could distribute it. The act also included funding for specific applications, such as homelessness outreach and rental assistance.

Although the state has disbursed some of its CARES Act funding to public schools, it simultaneously reduced its typical funding to those same schools, leaving many districts—including Austin ISD—scrambling to make up the additional costs incurred due to the pandemic.

At the federal level

Congress has not passed a relief package since May. Since then, more than 100,000 Americans have died of the disease.

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump announced an abrupt end to negotiations with Democrats over additional COVID relief funding until after the election. Hours later, he tweeted a request for Congress to send him a bill for a second round of stimulus checks.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler expressed hope that another relief bill was imminent during an Oct. 1 City Council meeting but acknowledged "it's like reading smoke signals or tea leaves."

Since then, Congress has struggled to reach an agreement. Treasury Secretary Steven Mncuhin said Wednesday that he does not expect a relief bill to arrive before the Nov. 3 election.

Despite the uncertainty of additional funding coming through in the new year, Hayden stressed the importance of the programs currently being reimbursed through the CARES Act.

"Public health is a number-one priority for the city of Austin and Travis County," she said at a press conference earlier this month. "We will continue to provide the level of service that we have provided thus far."

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