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