Without deadline extension, Williamson County could lose $20M in CARES Act funds

Williamson County

WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — With a deadline looming just four weeks away, Williamson County officials say they could lose up to $20 million in coronavirus relief money that must be spent by the end of the year or returned, if they don’t receive an extension.

Williamson County received $93,382,340 through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Aid, commonly called the CARES Act.

“We’re not going to spend money just to spend it. We’re going to spend it on things that are appropriate to be spent on,” said Williamson County Treasurer Scott Heselmeyer. “If we don’t have expenses that total up to $93 million, then we’re going to be sending some money back.”

Heselmeyer is still hopeful a CARES Act spending deadline extension will come.

“On Monday, I would have told you it wouldn’t happen. As of yesterday, I believe that some baby steps were taken. We got more money than we needed for 2020. I don’t think we got more money than we need for the COVID pandemic,” said Heselmeyer. “There is a continuing need. As we sit right now, we have the funds to keep helping our citizens with rent utility assistance into January, February and March, but we have a law that won’t allow us to do that.”

The CARES Act program acts as a reimbursement program, meaning it comes with legal limits. If the recipient has not incurred the expenses prior to the Dec. 31 deadline, then Williamson County cannot pay them.

“You know, we’re going to get audited. The county is going to get audited. If we dispersed money in a way that doesn’t comply with the CARES Act, then the county is going to be held liable,” said Williamson County Commissioner Russ Boles. “It’s not just a matter of getting the money out. The money has to be spent.”

To spend the funds, the county created a grant program called Wilco Forward, which divided its spending plan into multiple phases.

Wilco’s CARES Act phases

The county set aside $35 million for grants to small businesses affected by coronavirus, with a maximum of $30,000 per business, according to the plan’s first phase.

In the second phase, another $25 million was allotted for “cities, emergency service districts, the Williamson County and Cities Health District, Bluebonnet Trails, and the YMCA,” according to the county. On Oct. 6, the county reallocated $12 million from the second phase to reimburse schools and school districts for coronavirus related expenses, the county said.

The county also apportioned $5 million in a combination of community development block grants and CARES Act funds to provide rent and utility assistance through partnerships with several nonprofits: The Caring Place, The Salvation Army, the Round Rock Serving Center and Hill Country Community Ministries. The nonprofits would be reimbursed for providing the assistance, according to the county.

On Nov. 17, the county approved $500,000 for nonprofit food banks, making those organizations eligible for a single payment of $12,000 to $62,000, the county said.

Williamson County contingency plans

Heselmeyer said some of money that remains can be spent on requests already “in house.”

“For example, we set a $100 cap per student to our local school districts,” said Heselmeyer. “Many of those schools had expenses that were well in excess of $100 per/student. We have that information in house, and we already know what those entities need.”

The rent utility program will also continue throughout December. Williamson County put a $500,000 cap on that program, but it has potential to be increased if the food program has incurred additional expenses.

Programs like the small business grants, however, will take much longer than four weeks to process.

“That’s a darn shame,” said William Pinson said.

He started a small consulting firm in Williamson County earlier this year, right before the pandemic began. He was initially denied funding through the county program, but after a KXAN Investigation, was approved for a grant.

“It wasn’t enough to where it was like, ‘Oh wow, this solves all my problems.’ No, not at all,” he said, but noted he’s still thankful. “It was just nice to see that the right thing was done.”

Pinson urges the county to do everything the can to get that money to businesses like his.

“If you can keep some doors open and keep some folks employed, that’s the right place to spend the money.”

A look at other governments

KXAN reached out to several other Central Texas governments; none that responded had as much unexpended CARES Act money as Williamson County.

Hays County, which received over $4.8 million in CARES Act funds, said it expects to distribute all the money. The county currently has about $500,000 remaining. Of that, “at least $335K will be used to cover health professionals and law enforcement/first responder personnel remaining payroll as outlined in the US Treasury Guidance,” according to a Hays County spokesperson. “Additional PPE Supplies and other COVID-19 financial assistance for mortgage/rent and utility assistance that meets specific requirements will be processed in December.”

Travis County got $61,147,507 through the CARES Act. On Nov. 10, the county said it had allocated all the money and spent $47.39 million, leaving $13.75 million still available, according to Travis County Commissioner’s Court records.

“Travis County is projected to fully expend its allotment of the Coronavirus Relief Funds by December 30. However, reallocations between the major categories may be necessary to fully expend the funds by the deadline,” according to the county commissioner’s Nov. 10 agenda.

The county’s Planning and Budget staff presented to Commissioners Court, revealing that the majority of the funds allocated for TCTX Serve, to benefit local non-profits, had not been dispersed. At that meeting, the Commissioners Court approved a move to reallocate unspent funds from the Small Cities program and the Food Distribution program to the TCTX Serve program, enabling them to help 51 local nonprofits — more than originally anticipated.

Records from that meeting also indicated more than $3.1 million was still available for use through the HHS Rental and Mortgage Assistance program, meaning less than half of the allocated funds for that program had been dispersed. Staff are continuing to process those applications, and spokesman for the county said they are expecting an update from Planning and Budget staff on December 22.

A graph presented by Travis County staff to County Commissioners with an update on the plan to utilizing remaining CARES Act funding. (Graph: Travis County Commissioners Court Agenda Packet)

The Commissioners Court dealt with another pot of unused funds at their December 1 meeting, entering into an agreement with the City of Austin and granting them a portion of the county’s CARES Act funding.

Based on estimates from the summer, the county set aside more than $8.8 million for shared costs related to City’s and County’s COVID-19 response. The new agreement stipulates only $7.3 million will be paid to the city to reimburse them for certain expenses, including:

  • Operating the Austin-Travis County Isolation Facility
  • Maintenance of the Alternate Care for additional hospital beds
  • Providing personal protective equipment for City and County staff and contractors
  • Testing for the presence of COVID-19
  • Personnel costs (regular wages, stability pay, insurance, FICA, Medicare, and retirement contributions) for City employees working on projects related to the COVID-19 public health emergency

According to a county spokesman, the remaining $1.45 million will be reallocated to the County’s Direct Response program, for Travis County itself to utilize.

A spokesman for the City of Austin said the city does not have a specific number of unspent CARES Act dollars, but it plans to use all the funds by Dec. 30. Austin had spent $101.2 million, as of Sept. 30, according to the city.

The City of San Marcos submitted its preliminary plan in November to the Texas Department of Emergency Management with details on how it would spend its allocation of $3,655,630. San Marcos does not expect to return any funds, according to a spokesperson.

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