Over $200 million could be at the discretion of the next Tarrant County judge — Democrat Deborah Peoples or Republican Tim O’Hare.

Along with Tarrant County’s $900 million budget, the next county judge will be responsible for shepherding the remaining dollars allocated to the county through the American Rescue Plan Act

The county has spent only  $181.78 million of the $408 million received from the federal government. The money, which was sent to counties in 2021, is intended to help communities recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“These funds were allocated to get us through and out of the pandemic, and I think using these funds beyond purposes for pandemic recovery, I think is probably a step beyond,” said Christopher Lee, director of state relations with the North Texas Commission, an organization advocating for the region’s economic interests at the state and federal level.

Peoples wants to use the money to improve access to mental health services and improve public transportation. O’Hare believes the money should be used to provide tax relief. 

What is the American Rescue Plan Act?

The American Rescue Plan Act is a federal law that provides billions of dollars to state and local governments to help residents recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. You can read more of the Forth Worth Report’s coverage here

“When we’re getting that kind of money, we want it to make a long-term effect,” outgoing County Judge Glen Whitley said. “I think the plans that we’re setting up will do that.”

The funding comes with a broad set of possible uses. Some counties have elected to fund the development of broadband access across the county, or established grants and business accelerators. 

In Tarrant County, the money will go toward a mental health diversion center, grants for small businesses and nonprofits, along with new housing and child care programs. That’s just the money that’s been spent so far. The rest — about $226.22 million — is still sitting in the county’s coffers. 

Whitley said the county has spent a lot of money already and the commissioners court plan to encumber those funds by Jan. 31, when the new county judge and commissioners join the court. 

Here’s an overview of the upcoming Tarrant County elections: 

If the county has any remaining funds come January, Peoples and O’Hare have very different ideas about how the rest of the federal dollars should be spent. 

Of the money left to spend, the county has encumbered $133.9 million. That means the money has been set aside for a specific purpose through a contract, but the money hasn’t actually been spent.

The county has to officially encumber its funds by 2024 and spend those funds by 2026. Otherwise, the money will be returned to the federal government. 

The county has worked to form a plan for the remaining funds based on four primary goals: Prepare for the future, improve public health, revitalize the economy and prepare for the future.

Now, the majority of funds is set aside for improving public health and preparing for the future. The county’s public health goal also has the highest share of funds encumbered, or spent — $72.52 million. 

In the event of another pandemic, the county wants to ensure it is better equipped to respond, through better equipment, administration and community partnerships. 

“So that in the next pandemic, with the experience that we learned and the things that we saw on this one, we might be better prepared to  more quickly adapt,” Whitley said. 

About $40.22 million dollars is also set aside to go toward mental health — through a mental health diversion center and funding to My Health My Resources, an organization that supports mental health initiatives.

Peoples supports the county’s mental health initiatives and hopes to extend them using federal dollars. She also supports devoting money to early childhood education, the county recently penned a contract with Child Care Associates with the goal of increasing the availability of quality day care. 

“The money should be spent on improving the lives of the residents, period,” Peoples said. 

The county should also invest in public transportation, Peoples said. Money from the American Rescue Plan Act could be combined with the other federal dollars going to cities like Grapevine and Arlington to improve the connectivity of the region, Peoples said. 

“We have to focus on moving people from point A to point B and moving them effectively and efficiently so that they can get to jobs, so they can get to entertainment,” Peoples said. “I think people are coming to this realization that we can’t build enough roads.”

The county has been historically slow to fund transit on the scale of other major metro areas. As county judge, Peoples would have to secure two more votes to pass anything using American Rescue Plan Act funds. Peoples said she is confident she can help shift the county’s priorities regardless of who else is on the court. 

“Until you do something, people won’t use it,” Peoples said. “I think that’s what you have to do is sit down and set up realistic milestones that people can see and see success.”

The county chose not to invest federal funds into transit because it would likely require a longer-term commitment than allowed by the federal rules and could potentially be brought down by red tape and delays, Whitley said.

O’Hare believes the federal funds should be used to provide tax relief to residents. 

“I understand you can actually use it for tax relief,” he said. “It would be temporary tax relief since it’s not a permanent fund.”

O’Hare did not provide elaboration following additional requests for comment.  

Cities and counties are not explicitly allowed to use the federal dollars to offset taxes levied on residents, said Chris Lamond, a federal policy consultant with the North Texas Commission. The final rule does explicitly allow forgiveness of unpaid property taxes to prevent foreclosure, he added. 

“Frankly, we were focused on winning, not on what we would do with remaining ARPA funds on Jan. 5,” O’Hare said. “I’ll have two months to figure out all that and come up with a plan and come up with proposals in coordination with the county administrator, other commissioners.”

Tarrant County’s remaining available funds are an indication of North Texas’ strong economic recovery from the pandemic, Lee said. The money received from the federal government can be used creatively to help the region advance the interest of residents.

“I think cities and counties all over the state and all over the country are looking at how they can best utilize those funds,” Lee said. “Because I don’t think any, I don’t think we will ever see this amount of money coming from the federal government down to local levels in the near future.”

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.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.

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Rachel Behrndt

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for fortworthreport.org. She can be reached at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org