Tarrant moves federal funds after receiving few proposals to make projects happen

Tarrant County will reallocate money from the American Rescue Plan after developers failed to take advantage of funding to build affordable housing and additional cash came in to support public health efforts.

The commissioners voted 3-2 Tuesday to move money from affordable housing and public health to a proposed law enforcement training center and the Tarrant County Jail. Commissioners Alisa Simmons and Roy Charles Brooks, both Democrats, voted against the proposal.

Commissioners then voted 4-1 to finance portions of three affordable housing developments and five child care centers. Simmons voted against the proposals.

Tarrant County received $408 million from the American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress in March 2021 to provide pandemic relief for towns, cities and counties. It has until Dec. 31, 2024, to decide where the money will be spent and until Dec. 31, 2026, to spend it. If money is not allocated and spent, it has to be sent back to the U.S. Treasury.

The county will put $11 million toward building the county’s law enforcement training center and $22.5 million to the county’s budget for rehousing inmates from the Tarrant County Jail.

It will also move $14.6 million from efforts to provide housing to people experiencing homelessness and $9.84 from its partnership with the child development nonprofit Child Care Associates. Another $10 million will be reallocated from public health efforts because the department received money from grants.

Two separate proposals put $5.5 million toward three affordable housing projects in Fort Worth. The money will help create 25 units at Renaissance Heights in southeast Fort Worth, 24 units for single mothers through nonprofit Justin’s Place and 12 units for WestCare Texas Inc. unit Casa Mia for people experiencing homelessness.

Another $15.5 million will go toward four child care centers in Arlington, Fort Worth and Tarrant County.

Reallocation reasons

County administrator G.K. Maenius told the court Tuesday that ARPA funding categories were approximate because county staff at the time did not know what projects were going to be funded. Maenius said the county had gone out for proposals several times for projects that could be paid for by the federal dollars. The county then funded the ones that met the criteria for spending.

For example, the county received seven proposals for child care centers but only five met the guidelines for funding, according to commissioner agenda documents. The county has historically had a difficult time getting developers and government agencies to take advantage of funding available for affordable housing.

Ahead of the reallocation vote, assistant county administrator Russell Schaffner told commissioners the reallocations surrounding public health did not reflect a change in services and that the health department has received outside funding sources to make up for the lost funding.

Maenius said the county has moved ARPA funds to meet needs and the desires of commissioners in the past, and emphasized how critical it was to meet the Treasury’s deadlines.

Brooks told a packed commissioners courtroom crowd that the county has put $21.8 million in ARPA funds toward affordable housing to fund 110 affordable units and spent $35.2 million on child care.

“The fact that we don’t have more developers planning affordable housing and deeply affordable housing so that we could have spent more of that money is regrettable, but it is what it is,” Brooks said. He said the same for government entities that could join the efforts to build more housing.

Simmons said she thought it was too soon to put ARPA dollars toward the law enforcement training center — the county does not know where the center will go, its final cost or what its scope will be, she said.

The county has yet to vote to build the center and is awaiting results from a feasibility study.

Simmons made a motion to approve the reallocations but earmark the $11 million in funds for the law enforcement training center for county projects instead. It failed 2-3 with the Republicans, County Judge Tim O’Hare and commissioners Gary Fickes and Manny Ramirez voting no.

Brooks said he would like to see the jail population lowered before the county put money toward law enforcement efforts, and Simmons added that she couldn’t support taking funds away from programs that need the money.

O’Hare told the crowd there had been efforts to reduce the jail population and also significant commitments made for affordable housing and child care in Tarrant County. He said the investment in the training center was an investment in “law and order.”

Resident concerns

The agenda items on ARPA drew 36 public comments. All of the speakers asked the commissioners to reconsider reallocating the federal funds.

Most of the public’s concerns centered on the county taking funds and putting them toward law enforcement given criticisms of the county’s contract with a private jail to hold Tarrant County Jail inmates, the robustness of the county’s law enforcement budget and the redundancy of a potential new law enforcement training center.

Some wondered if the county could be more creative in the way it spends its funds.

Tarrant County has a contract to house inmates in Garza County. Meanwhile, Sheriff Bill Waybourn has shown up to commissioners to request a feasibility study to look into whether a new jail is needed as the current one overflows.

Those in favor of keeping funding for public health efforts told the commissioners people were still getting sick with COVID-19 in the latest summer wave. While cases are increasing in Fort Worth, they are nowhere near the highest levels from the past three summers.

The Rev. Ryon Price of Broadway Baptist Church told commissioners that the contract to move inmates to a private jail was wrong.

“But how much more wrong is it now to take the scraps that belong to the children and use them to feed the twin beasts of mass incarceration and corporate privatization?” Price said.

Price’s comments were met with applause that made O’Hare bang his gavel and threaten to remove people out of the meeting if they continued.

“We don’t have to do this on the backs of those among us who need a roof over their heads, or medical care, or access to quality childcare so that they can work to support their families,” said resident Stella Fare.