Tarrant taxpayers pick up $7M bill on COVID vaccine effort after county misstep

Tarrant County will shoulder the $7 million price tag for the UNT Health Science Center’s lackluster COVID vaccination rollout, after the federal government indicated it would not approve the county’s request to be reimbursed.

County leaders had planned to use federal FEMA funds to cover what it paid to UNT Health Science Center for a 2021 contract, in which the county tasked the center with distributing COVID vaccines to the most vulnerable residents.

But county administrator G.K. Maenius told the Star-Telegram that FEMA officials said they were unlikely to cover the costs, because the county did not go through a competitive bid process before selecting UNT Health Science Center.

“FEMA’s position then became, ‘Look, because you didn’t go out on competitive bid, then we’re not obligated to make those payments to you,’” Maenius said. “They pretty much dug their heels into the sand and said, ‘No, you did not competitively bid it.’”

The UNT Health Science Center vaccination contract was the focus of a Star-Telegram investigation in 2022, which found that the center delivered drastically fewer shots than it originally envisioned, at a much higher cost-per-shot than originally outlined, while also failing to significantly reach some target populations.

In all, HSC aimed to administer 265,000 vaccines but actually administered 23,265. For its efforts, the center charged the county $7.16 million. Ultimately, the county commissioners voted in July 2021 to terminate the contract early, at a public meeting that was punctuated by critical comments from Commissioner Roy Brooks and then-Commissioner Devan Allen.

[ MORE: Black pastors say UNTHSC made a crucial mistake in Tarrant County vaccination effort ]

When the county signed the contract with HSC, Maenius said, the county was not aware that FEMA would require a competitive bid process in order to be reimbursed. The county instead entered into an interlocal agreement with the UNT Health Science Center, which is a type of contract that allows governmental entities to work with each other.

“We felt very comfortable that we were touching all the bases,” Maenius said. But, “it’s very difficult for FEMA to fund even legitimate expenses if you don’t follow FEMA’s guidelines.”

After realizing that process didn’t meet FEMA’s requirements, the county pulled its application. (Because the county withdrew the application as opposed to waiting for a formal denial, a FEMA spokesperson said, the agency does not have additional information available on the application.)

Without funds from the federal government, the county had to find a way to balance its books on the $7 million in payments to UNT Health Science Center.

The county’s budget director explained the situation to commissioners at an Aug. 15 meeting.

“We’ve been working with FEMA and (the Texas Division of Emergency Management) to try to get reimbursement for all, or a part or a dollar, and that’s not been successful,” said Helen Giese, the budget and risk management director. “They do not believe that they will be reimbursing us for any or part of this grant.”

The commissioners then unanimously voted to move $7.16 million out of the county’s undesignated fund to cover the cost.

Maenius said the grant shortfall won’t impact the county’s overall budget, because the county was able to move over funds that it had originally slated for other projects that ended up getting federal funding.