Tarrant County has devoted about a quarter of the $408 million it received from the American Rescue Plan Act. The county has taken a slow and steady approach to distributing the funds, county officials said.
However, through the summer and early fall, allocations are expected to pick up.
The county created a framework of four categories of funding: Improve public health, strengthen the community, prepare for the future and revitalize the economy. Tarrant County allocated a topline dollar into each of the categories, with plans to fill in the categories with specific projects later.
“We’ve been working to really drill down to what programs in those areas would make the largest impact,” said assistant county administrator Kristen Camareno.
The court conducted a community needs assessment last year. Based on its study, the county chose its four focus areas. The county modeled their approach after its CARES Act plan. The framework makes reporting the county’s expenditures easier to the US Treasury, which oversees the program, Kristen Camareno, assistant county administrator, said.
“We’ve got to start somewhere and have a framework that relates our spending to common areas of need,” Camareno said. “I think that makes what we’re doing easily translatable to the public and eventual recipient.”
The county received more than double the federal funds compared to Fort Worth, which has spent about 85% of its allocation. County officials are taking more time to spend the funds compared to cities because the treasury’s final rule requirements are more stringent on counties.
What is the treasury’s final rule?
The final rule is a guide to how counties can use the federal funds and reporting requirements after the money is spent. For example, the final rule allows cities and counties to specifically use the funds in response to the public health emergency and its economic impacts.
Nationally, counties have budgeted about 40% of their individual allocations, Mark Ritacco, the National Association of Counties’ chief government affairs officer, said. Counties have until 2026 to allocate their federal funds.
“Given that relatively long timeline, it’s no surprise that the counties are being deliberative and want to make smart investments with this historic funding,” Ritacco said.
In Montgomery County, Maryland, officials invested in providing computers to residents and expanding access to internet services. In King County, Washington, officials plan to convert multifamily housing developments into affordable housing developments.
The Tarrant County Commissioners Court, which approves the federal allocations, has focused on funding four major programs. The county approved a partnership with child development nonprofit Child Care Associates, a small business recovery fund, a community programs fund and a program to address gaps in affordable housing.
The commissioners court approved:
- $25 million for a small business fund
- $45 million for childcare
- $32.5 million for housing, to be approved in August
- $35.5 million for community programs fund.
While the county has promised to devote $45 million for childcare in partnership with Childcare Associates, the partners are still working out the particulars. The county plans to present a contract for final approval to the commissioners court in late July.
The county outlined three partnership goals.
- Strengthen childcare businesses through business coaching
- Stabilize childcare for infants and toddlers through cost-offers and salary increases
- Expand access to childcare by adding 50 infant-toddler classrooms in high need neighborhoods
“At a high level, there’s definitely a potential for programs that we’re embarking on to have an impact beyond just Tarrant County,” Camareno said.
Unofficially, the county will use most of the $45 million to expand access to childcare. The funds will be used to create a whole new program, establishing a unique approach to creating more equitable opportunities for childcare, Child Care Associates CEO Kara Waddell previously told the Report.
“Changing the system for the long haul – that’s what we’re trying to do,” Waddell said.
The county also solicited requests from local nonprofits and municipalities for its community programs fund. The commissioners court allocated $35.5 million to the requests for proposals, and received 131 proposals asking for a total of $208 million.
The requests for funds were due to the county in May and range from $10,000 to $20 million each. A majority of the applications are from well-established organizations like United Way and AccelerateDFW.
“We could have 100 excellent proposals that all want to do the same thing,” Camareno said.
The county will evaluate the applications based on a risk assessment, the county’s needs, and availability of matching funds. County staff will bring its recommendations to the commissioners court in mid to late July.
The county will soon begin accepting applications for a piece of the $25 million devoted to its small business funds. Starting July 11, small businesses with 50 or fewer employees can apply for up to $27,500 in aid.
The program will be first come, first served, so it is advantageous to get applications in early, said Maegan South, Tarrant County’s economic development director.
The county has established a working group to consider best uses for over $32 million devoted to housing. The working group includes organizations focused on housing and staff from Fort Worth, Arlington and Tarrant County. Fort Worth has devoted about $5 million to permanent supportive housing so far.
The group will present its final recommendations to the use of those funds by early August, Camareno said.
Largest share of ARPA money will go toward public health
Over $125 million in federal money will go toward “improving public health.” Potential projects range from creating a mental health jail diversion center to funds for personal protective equipment.
“Those funds are going to be available to us to kind of get us to that next level, if you will, in improving services available to the community,” said Vinny Taneja, the county’s public health director.
The county prioritized the use of ARPA funds for emergency COVID response immediately after receiving the federal dollars. The funds were an early “shot in the arm” to the county’s COVID response, Taneja said.
“There’s a myriad of other sorts of operational issues that we are able to quickly resolve when we need flexible funding to address a disparity or a need in the community,” Taneja said.
The county’s approach follows a national trend, Ritacco said.
“Counties are weighing two competing priorities, which is the immediate response to the public health crisis … and also the economic impacts that go along with that,” Ritacco said.
The county still has funds to spend on COVID-related response, including about $2 million for COVID-19 vaccinations and over $1 million for COVID-19 testing.
Supply chain issues periodically made it difficult to obtain rapid testing kits and personal protective equipment.
“When the demand was very high, it was a challenge to get some things,” Taneja said. “But overall, things have been pretty stable in terms of us being able to get supplies.”
The public health department also received grant funding through other federal programs to expand vaccination programs. The county recently started offering vaccinations for children ages 6 months to five years at its six public health centers.
The remaining public health dollars will be spent on other programs, not necessarily administered by the Tarrant County public health department, Taneja said. Larger programs, including the planned mental health diversion center, are included in the public health category, but will be led by other departments.
“It’s a broader look at things,” Taneja said.
With three county commissioners leaving the court in October – County Judge Glen Whitley, Precinct 2 Commissioner Devan Allen and Precinct 4 Commissioner J.D. Johnson – the five-person court could have a different makeup come fall.
It’s unclear what impact a shifting commissioners court could have on the remaining federal dollars.
“These dollars are an investment in the future of Tarrant County,” Camareno said. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a long lasting impact on our community and our county.”
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter 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.