Jessica Priest: Hello, I’m Jessica Priest with the Fort Worth Report. This week, I spent a few minutes with both Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley and Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker. I asked them about the American Rescue Plan Act, which is providing historic funding to local governments strained by the COVID-19 pandemic. The first conversation you’ll hear is between Whitley and me. I had heard that Robert Kaplan, the CEO and president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, led a meeting for Tarrant County officials to coordinate their plans for the funding. I asked Whitley how that meeting went. (Please note this conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio attached to this article.)
Glen Whitley: The county’s going to get about $408 million, and cities could get around $473 million, so that in and of itself is over $880 million. School districts, just two, Fort Worth is getting about $250 million, Arlington is getting about $185 million, so that puts us over a billion. And that’s not even including the other school districts. You know, there’s 18 to 20 other school districts in Tarrant County and, on top of that, we’re getting money directly from the federal government for broadband, for homelessness, for childcare, for all kinds of different things. I just thought, OK, if we could collaborate together and really try to set some priorities, we could be affecting Tarrant County for the next decade as opposed to just the next couple of years. I sat down and talked with some of our foundation executives. John Robinson with Carter, Pete Geren with Sid Richardson, and then also Rose Bradshaw, although she didn’t get to make it to the meeting. And, from that, Pete Geren called and talked with Tom Luce with Texas 2036 and Tom in turn talk with Rob Kaplan, the chairman of the Dallas Fed, and they called and said, “OK, if you’re going to bring those people together, why don’t you let us facilitate the meeting?’ And so Mayor Parker and myself invited folks. We had Arlington ISD, Fort Worth ISD, TCC, United Way, the city of Arlington and the city of Fort Worth. We all came together. And, on Monday, Mr. Kaplan came in. He’s a graduate from Harvard and then went to work for Goldman Sachs before being appointed chair of the Dallas Fed, and so he was excited about the opportunity of trying to facilitate this meeting. We got together, he asked questions and we helped to try to identify needs and then priorities. And, from that, we began to move forward … I think it was a great meeting.
Priest: You talked with me previously about the county hiring a consultant that was going to go and talk with each of these entities that were at the meeting and identify needs and priorities. When did the county hire that consultant?
Whitley: We hired him a couple of weeks ago. We had gone through the RFP (request for proposal) process. In the course of our trying to begin to plan for how we were going to use the money, we decided that we needed a needs survey that could help us prioritize the needs and not just simply use this money to pay for usual types of expenses or infrastructure. And so we hired a company called IEM. When we put out the RFP, they came back and said,”We could do this. It will take about four to six months.” And to all of the people who proposed the job we said, “No, we want you to talk to us about what it would take for you to be able to accomplish this within 30 to 45 days with an initial report and a final report in 60 to 75 days.” So we want this to happen very quickly. … What we said to them is, “We want you to not just look at county departments, but we want you to go throughout the county and help us to look at what we can do.”
Tarrant County has I think a real spirit of collaboration, and we work together to be successful, as opposed to trying to be successful by our lonesome. And I think that’s something that we have a reputation for around the state. In fact, Mr. Kaplan and Mr Luce both commented on the fact that we were unique in our ability to bring these major players to the table, and that that’s the reason why they felt like this was the best place to start on this deal.
Priest: How will this funding be transformational for Tarrant County? There’s opportunities over the years, like with the budget and bonds, to make some progress toward long-term goals. How is this influx of funding different from that?
Whitley: I think that it’s because of the fact that we’re talking about what we hope is a once-in-100-year event, and we feel like that this is a one-time injection. We need to be careful not to spend it on things that create ongoing, annual costs because we all know that this money that came in, this over $2 billion that’s being spread among a lot of different places … is a one- time payment. And so I think we’ve got to be careful to set up infrastructure. As we went through and identified needs, the ones that kept bubbling to the top was education, which is not just schools as we might think, but it’s quality childcare, it’s early childhood development, it’s schools, it’s maybe an after-school program, things that will help our kids catch up from COVID, but it’s also getting kids who are near graduation or are graduated, maybe there’s a certification or associate’s degree versus a full-four year degree or master’s, and that can get them to the point to where they can get livable wage jobs and and be productive in our community. That’s one thing that kept bubbling up. The other thing was mental health. One of the things that the county is talking with the cities and the police forces about is setting up a mental health jail diversion center so we don’t end up having someone in the jail who has a mental health issue, but really shouldn’t be in the jail. They’re not picked up for a serious crime, it’s more of a criminal mischief or trespass or something along those lines. The best place for them is not the jail, nor is it the best and most efficient way for the police to deal with that particular issue, so mental health is definitely going to be a concern and then I think the final one that we looked at or that we’ve seen and kept being referred to was broadband. I think we have learned that even within an urban county this last year and a half that there are spots that are not well suited for internet connections … Those were just two or three of the deals. What Mr. Kaplan pointed out and even more emphasized this was the fact that a lot of folks are coming to Texas. We have a tremendous demand for skilled workers. And we need to do everything we can to fill that and so that’s the education, as well as some of the broadband purposes for this.
Priest: Finally, how will you show residents where the funding, the American Rescue Plan Act funding, ultimately went and that it was used wisely? How will you hold yourself accountable to them?
Whitley: All this is on our website. It deals with not only what our current areas of emphasis would be, but then as we spend money, we have a budget that is set up for our American Rescue Plan Act activities and we will constantly be updating that for not only programs that we have authorized or prioritized, but also for actual expenditures that have been made from that program. It will be very transparent and available for people to look at and to question.
Priest: That concludes my conversation with Whitley. The next conversation you’ll hear is between Mayor Mattie Parker and me.
Mayor Parker, tell me how the meeting with Mr Kaplin went. What did you learn and what action items did you take away from the meeting?
Mattie Parker: A few different things. First, I would compliment Robert Kaplan and Tom Luce from Texas 2036 for being willing to facilitate a discussion like that. It’s a really unique opportunity for Tarrant County. Special thanks to Judge Whitley and his team for putting this together. This is one-time historic funding for our community, and we need to get it right, so I learned a few things. First of all, the categories of need across Tarrant County and Texas really are not new, but they are more enhanced because of pandemic. Secondly, there are a lot of ways we can avoid duplication if we stay on this course of coordination, which I think is very important. And third, there’s going to be some very immediate needs for community, but also things that are long-range plans and how do we reconcile those things at the same time, while also focusing on changing outcomes in a positive direction for all of Fort Worth, with special attention to those in our community that need it most.
Priest: How will you coordinate with the other entities receiving this funding? Will you be having more meetings, or is there something additional that you’ll be doing?
Parker: Yes is the answer. … We each have teams that are focused specifically around ARPA funding. This roundtable discussion was the first of many. Mr Kaplan likely will help facilitate another one in the future, but it will be our responsibility to keep those going, especially if we get into specific sectors that we’re going to focus on, so that coordination will continue across multiple entities.
Priest: Has the city decided what its priorities are for the funding? My colleagues have been reporting on several ideas ranging from the convention center to permanent supportive housing to a soccer complex.
Parker: Yes, so I’m going to put these in two categories for listeners because I think it’s helpful. We’re calling them the non-revenue recovery funds and the revenue recovery funds. The revenue recovery funds are specific things or projects that might have been delayed or postponed because of the pandemic, and the most notable of those that most of your listeners understand is the Commerce Street realignment. The public events department projects that are related to the convention center and Will Rogers. As you can imagine, those are huge tourism and business centers for our community, and the opportunity to expand the convention center, a new arena, the alignment of Commerce Street is something multiple partners, private sector and public, have been excited about for a while.
And then, related to the recovery project areas, we had a few things in the works that were specific to our majority-minority areas. They were major infrastructure projects that got sidelined because of COVID. We’ve got to prioritize those. Those are neighborhood streets, streetlights, sidewalks and parking development.
And then in the non-revenue recovery, there are a variety of different opportunities that we’re considering here at the city. Some of them are related to the pandemic, things such as an emergency operations center and then vaccine operations, that we had to stand up overnight because of COVID. Other major priorities are water and wastewater stormwater, a few things related to cybersecurity technology and also broadband projects that can help the community. And then you also mentioned a few tourism industry recovery opportunities, other than the convention center. That is absolutely one thing we want to focus on. The sports tourism soccer complex is something we’ve considered for several years now. From a sports tourism space, that is something that holds us back. The project that’s been reported on as a potential in North Fort Worth is a very exciting project. It will include multiple partners, and the city’s participation would be limited to a certain amount of money, but this is a way we can use ARPA dollars to help spur that project forward.
Priest: Has the city decided what amount of money to limit the soccer complex to?
Parker: No, not necessarily. It may not all be ARPA funds. Those are open considerations. And those are competing opportunities with also some very important projects, like permanent supportive housing projects, that we currently already funded under the first round of ARPA, and we have our teams, both here at the city of Fort Worth, led by Tara Perez, and also Lauren King at Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, and, of course, Fort Worth Housing Solutions looking for other properties that can be related to homeless housing so there’s a lot of different options and really cool opportunities for us right now.
Priest: Some people think this ARPA funding is an opportunity to address inequities in our society in general. How will this funding be transformational and sustainable? How will you make it transformational and sustainable?
Parker: A large portion of the conversation we had on Monday in our roundtable focused on that very thing. How do you address inequities across Fort Worth related to food insecurity, housing and access to jobs? Education is at the center of all that. Those that are well-educated have opportunities. They can make a living wage and those other issues aren’t really facing their families in the same way as long as the city’s addressing, for instance affordable housing. That’s at the forefront of our process. I can tell you the city of Fort Worth has led in this area most recently in how our bond for 2022 will roll out. Equity is a key measure in how they’re prioritizing projects. We are taking that same process and applying it to how we will spend ARPA dollars, and I know the county is also doing that. The way they’re doing it with community needs assessment right now across the county is a focus in those areas, so I feel right now we are on the absolute right track. And we just have to keep it a priority in our decision making.
Priest: How is this funding different from the budget and the bond programs? Local governmental entities say one of the goals with budget and bonds is to make some progress toward long-term goals. How is this opportunity different?
Parker: A few things will guide our philosophy here. These need to be one-time uses that don’t increase our ongoing operating costs… That might be similar to say the way we spend bond dollars, because we know that those are mostly one-time costs versus the way we operate annually with our budget process, if that makes sense. We also are using a real focus targeting projects that have a stronger return on investment, especially in our areas that were hit hardest by the pandemic, our communities that economically have not recovered and need additional assistance.
Priest: Finally, how will you show residents where the funding ultimately went and that it was used wisely? How will you hold yourself, how will the city hold itself accountable to residents?
Parker: One priority that I personally have here at the city that I think it resonated with other folks in the room on Monday is I’d like for us to develop our own dashboard related to our priorities with ARPA, how we’re spending this money and how it may relate to other opportunities in the future to funnel public-private partnerships together. I think a very good example is what you’ve seen happen with Texas 2036. They have a very robust data dashboard that they utilize. …Collected impact partners across Tarrant County are using Commit. Those are two leading organizations in North Texas that we can partner with to hold ourselves accountable, measure outcomes and data and report back out to the community in real time, which I do think is something that’s been missing oftentimes in government. Private sector does a better job of that…
Priest: And that’s all we have for this week. As always, send us follow up questions and suggestions for community leaders we should have on by reaching out to us on our various social channels. And to support our journalism, go to fortworthreport.org/donate. Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.