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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Mount Bonnell<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzNTUyMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MDEzODU5NX0.SQVQYQc5VpT_UQe-BQsexRgUp1yIUbjiB-Hz7cAgkUE/img.jpg?width=980" id="6a82f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6909566cc1a80e66660ddb3153882a5f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1599" data-height="1066" />
(Spawnzilla/CC)<p>Mount Bonnell is probably the most well-known scenic locale in Austin and has been since the 1830s. Known for its panoramic view of downtown, Lady Bird Lake and the Hill Country to the west. Today thousands of visitors ascend the 106 stone stairs to the summit to take in the beautiful view. Located in Covert Park in Northeast Austin, the trail is dog-friendly with a leash, but it is not wheelchair accessible.</p>
Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail and Boardwalk at Lady Bird Lake<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjg0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMjg2NjY4OH0.3hTVUhMTrJ7FkqWgYivC03M7NbQGhkvM85St6nSACF8/img.jpg?width=1200&coordinates=0%2C240%2C0%2C240&height=800" id="6db33" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="be5523bfa32d06f91a0e0915e7f1fd3b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1200" data-height="800" />
(MX/Wikimedia)<p>The Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail is a 10-mile boardwalk with numerous entrance and exit points and is Austin's most recognized and popular recreational trail. Not only is it an Austin favorite for exercise, it also hosts one of the most beautiful views of Austin's skyline the city has to offer. The paved trail runs over Lady Bird Lake, also known as Town Lake, giving people an undisturbed view of Downtown Austin overlooking the water. The trail is dog friendly with a leash and wheelchair accessible.</p>
Zilker Park<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjc5Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NDE0NzMzNn0.hE8NKm_6Ldoi36TZcTVHAbc9K6H1FWTqnI8cK60u3jY/img.jpg?width=980" id="2cb32" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4696ca4392a59a956761ae419b161a7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1600" data-height="900" />
(Mwyzykowski0821/Wikimedia)<p>Zilker Park is Austin's pride and joy. The park hosts ACL every year (when there isn't a pandemic), the Trail of Lights each holiday season and other events in the city. The 351-acre space is the go-to locale for Austinites who want to get outside and enjoy a direct view of the city skyline--usually serving as a backdrop for any event held at the spot. As one of the only scenic destinations to allow dogs off-leash, it is the most dog-friendly spot in the city. Zilker Park is wheelchair accessible (although it might be best to avoid the park after rain).</p>
Barton Creek Greenbelt-Sculpture Falls<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzNTU2My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTU1NDE2NX0.kM0EJgiwl60yCLYd2xMtqPUM9ukysu_KmQhMiP6XGMo/img.jpg?width=980" id="75e17" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="64cdd0ef728567c25261e17227855fe6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="4032" data-height="3024" />
(Austonia)<p><strong></strong>Sculpture Falls is a hidden location on the 7.9 mile Barton Creek Greenbelt. The best way to access the location is via the Hill of Life and the Trail's End access point in South Austin at 1710 Camp Craft Road. The scenic views of this location may not be sweeping views of the city skyline, however, the glistening pools and waterfalls, the trees hanging over the water make the spot one of the most underrated in Austin. The hike back up the Hill of Life is 1.5 miles and mostly on the sun, so make sure to bring plenty of water. The location is dog-friendly with a leash, but it is not wheelchair accessible.</p>
McKinney Falls-Upper and Lower Falls<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjk3Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzODY3MTE0NH0.yBqNznABvsJCBp_tdrREOMI20eWy3a4dNLwBbe4SKAc/img.jpg?width=980" id="135bf" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c712742e6dbe4592a7294aad89b9f655" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1760" data-height="796" />
Photo of Lower McKinney Falls
(Texas Parks & Wildlife Department)<p>McKinney Falls is one of the many Texas State parks and is a series of two waterfalls–an upper and lower falls. Both spots feature limestone waterfalls along Onion Creek and swimming pools. The lower falls are more shallow and recommended for families with younger children while the upper falls are a bit deeper. Pets are allowed on a leash in the park, however, they are not allowed in the water at the falls. The park is not fully wheelchair accessible. There is a $6 fee for adults to enter the park and children under 12 can enter for free. During COVID, it is recommended to make reservations to enter the park if you plan to visit.<br></p>
Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzNTc0MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMDEyNzM3Mn0.HATaya2WqEf1dRD6zO2WMvoCQii7mHKa9oJ9H2Huxqg/img.jpg?width=980" id="f503b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="96c77fa947db2d4ae07efc545785fc12" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2040" data-height="1530" />
(Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center/Facebook)<p>Located in far-west Austin, Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center is the farthest out from Austin's city center and is another location that may not offer sweeping views of the Hill Country, however, the center features some of the most unique views in Texas. The highlight of the preserve is Westcave at the head of the canyon. It features a 40-foot waterfall backed by caves, diverse vegetation and an emerald pool. Canyon tours are not dog-friendly but are wheelchair accessible; they are offered every Saturday & Sunday. Self-guided hikes are offered Tuesday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and require reservations.</p>
Red Bud Isle<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0MTk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MTcwNDA4N30.ImQe01BIolSJVNBCJAFbQz1WfuDP8fitr_XXZWNytQk/img.jpg?width=980" id="767c3" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a21655c41f9c7da188eb99dd0371d2dd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lady bird lake dog winslow swimming" />
(Austonia)<p>Red Bud Isle is one of the most popular areas for pet owners to let their dogs off-leash in Austin. The small island lies just below the Tom Miller Dam on Town Lake. The edge of Red Bud Isle offers a view of Town Lake and the densely-packed trees to either side. Depending on the time of year, colorful kayaks and stand-up paddleboards add some pop of color to the view. The 13-acre park is, of course, dog-friendly and wheelchair accessible. Be careful with your pets during the summer months, however, as there have been <a href="https://austonia.com/city/algae-killing-dogs" target="_blank">toxic algae blooms two years in a row</a>.<br></p>
Wild Basin Preserve<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMzEyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTMwODY3N30.aw3W_bvqThNlF_9WGE5GVte7ajhJoPQxQEUnM4FCT4Y/img.jpg?width=980" id="0b1a3" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="615c86b10cc2c034b9518f73534cad3e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1600" data-height="900" />
(Larry D. Moore/Wikimedia)<p><span style="background-color: initial;">The Wild Basin Preserve is 227 acres of Hill Country woodlands owned by Travis County and St. Edwards University as part of the larger Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, which protects the unique environments of seven endangered species and 28 threatened plant and animal species. The preserve is home to the endangered Golden-cheeked warbler as well as many other Texas-native plants and wildlife. There isn't any one location that is the highlight of the preserve—the highlight is spotting the local wildlife. While it has been closed for the past several months, Wild Basin is expected to open for limited hours in late-January. It is not pet-friendly and is somewhat wheelchair accessible.</span><span style="background-color: initial;"></span><br></p>
Barton Springs<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjk2NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2NTY4NzMzMH0.1Nd-a5CEiPDSaLOB_nJYAZiHC8dZVvS5l4QOJhHsvd8/img.jpg?width=980" id="721f6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="82bc4f00174755913a86a103f01ad6ad" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="720" data-height="403" />
Section of Barton Springs on the paid access side. (austintx.gov)<p><span style="background-color: initial;">Barton Springs is another one of those locations that doesn't have one particular highlight. There are two sections to Barton Springs: one section requires a small entrance fee and allows for a little more space to sprawl out, whereas the other, much larger, section is free but sometimes requires a little creativity with where you set up camp. Both sides feature cool, clear, blue water from the natural springs in the area. </span><br></p>
Congress Avenue Bridge<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjc4OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkyNjcxNn0.ieWjFaKRtsoVrudyGVtp_q3xlM8ghFgd7Y-QZqQVOoo/img.jpg?width=980" id="c4dfa" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4e69c74aa25973d14285a49d8b070bd1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="641" data-height="426" />
(Texas Parks & Wildlife Department)<p>The Congress Avenue Bridge goes over Lady Bird Lake and is a place to get a very unique view of the city. Every year, Austinites gather on the bridge to witness up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats feed on 10-30,000 pounds of insects. The best time to view the bats is mid-August when you can see them ascending into the evening sky. This area of Austin is wheelchair accessible and pet-friendly with a leash.</p>
The Middle of Town Lake<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMzExOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MjIxNDQzN30.DAnxtXZTYH60LicTxw4J_qzJ7CSZ2ez7hNi8qFaxjJ4/img.jpg?width=980" id="a81af" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4dc3198f3a64889a16d7f442f56e0a2c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="4032" data-height="3024" />
Evening view from the middle of Town Lake
(Laura Figi/Austonia)<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This one might seem a little odd, but get yourself a kayak or stand up paddle board and enjoy the view of the city from the water. It's a unique perspective on the city that is probably the best representation of why this city is so unique. There are also some boat tours throughout the year. Boat tours are wheelchair accessible. The lake has multiple entrance points and pets are allowed on water vessels, but not in the water.</span><br></p>