Tarrant County Commissioners voted Tuesday to cut tens of millions of dollars from affordable housing, childcare and public health funding.

They reallocated much of that money to build a new law enforcement training center and to continue a contract with a private prison 270 miles away in Garza County.

The county received about $408 million from the federal government through the American Recovery Plan Act, passed in 2021. The act gave money to cities and counties for COVID-19 pandemic recovery efforts, which the county planned to use for updating county facilities, improving public health, boosting the economy and expanding affordable housing.

On Tuesday, county officials said those dollar amounts were estimates that need to be updated. Tarrant County Commissioners voted 3-2, Republicans against Democrats, to cut about $14.6 million from the ARPA budget for affordable housing, $10 million from public health efforts, and $10 million from childcare.

The county can only pay for the projects that ask for money, Democratic County Commissioner Roy Brooks said. The county funded all eligible affordable housing projects, he told the packed commissioners courtroom, but $15 million was left over.

“The fact that we don’t have more developers planning affordable housing and deeply affordable housing, so that we could have spent more of that money, is regrettable. But it is what it is,” Brooks said.

About 30 residents signed up to speak about the reallocation, and all asked commissioners to keep the money where it was. 

Lauren King addresses the Tarrant County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, Sept. 5. King urged commissioners to invest in housing. (Rachel Behrndt | Fort Worth Report)

Lauren King, the head of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, told commissioners that family homelessness in Tarrant County is at an all-time high. Right now, 45 families are sleeping in their cars, she said.

“The investments you choose to make today will impact our community, our children and our families for years to come, and will ultimately determine the kind of county we become,” she said.

Although Brooks said the reallocations were necessary, he voted against them because he didn’t support where the funds would be moved to: $11 million to build a new training center for the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office and $22.5 million for the county’s continuing contract with a private prison in Garza County.

Last year, the county approved an $18 million contract with the private prison, the Giles W. Dalby Correctional Facility, and sent more than 400 inmates there. The county will also use the facility to relocate inmates while the jail undergoes HVAC renovations, County Administrator G.K. Maenius said Tuesday.

No existing affordable housing or public health projects will suffer under the ARPA budget changes, county officials said. The county will make up the $10 million cut to public health using grants and other funding sources, Russell Schaffner, assistant county administrator said. 

The reallocation of funds to the sheriff’s training academy is a good way to improve safety at the jail, said Republican County Judge Tim O’Hare.

The sheriff’s office is in charge of running the jail, where at least 56 people have died since 2018. Tarrant County residents who speak before the Commissioners Court often bring concerns about jail conditions.

“If you’ve been to the sheriff’s training academy, it is dreadful, and we want our officers, and we want our jailers, to be trained well,” O’Hare said.

Democratic County Commissioner Alisa Simmons supports law enforcement, she said, but if she voted for the ARPA budget changes, that would go against her purpose as a public servant.

“I will not sit in this seat, entrusted to me by constituents, and vote against childcare, supportive housing — that is crazy to me,” she said.

The federal government requires counties to allocate all its ARPA money by 2024 and spend it all by 2026, or the county has to give it back.

The county has to consider those deadlines, how long certain projects might take, and federal requirements, said Republican Commissioner Manny Ramirez, who voted to reallocate the money.

“It’s not this court’s fault that the federal government put regulations on where moneys could be spent,” he said.

The Commissioners Court also approved millions of dollars in funding for affordable housing and childcare projects Tuesday. By the end of the day, both of those categories had two-thirds of the ARPA money originally budgeted spent on projects, Brooks said.

Dozens of Tarrant County residents told commissioners during public comment that reallocating the ARPA money was a serious misstep.

Resident Stella Fair emphasized that she respects law enforcement, but she didn’t want to see money taken away from other important causes.

“We don’t have to do this on the backs of those among us who need a roof over their heads, or medical care, or access to quality child care so they can work and support their families,” she said.

Commissioners approve millions for childcare, housing 

Coupled with the reallocation plan, the county approved two new appropriations for early childhood education and low-income housing Tuesday. The money went to seven projects, all of which requested more money from the county than received through Tuesday’s allocations. 

The county will spend about $15.5 million to partially fund four projects to expand availability of infant and toddler childcare in Tarrant County. Child Care Associates, the organization leading the county’s investment in childcare, sought proposals in April from public entities such as cities and school districts to provide physical space for the federal Early Head Start program. 

Seven proposals were submitted to an evaluation committee led by Child Care Associates. Five were eligible for funding under federal guidelines but just four were recommended for funding from the county by the committee. Tarrant County College and the cities of Arlington and Fort Worth will receive the funding. 

Child Care Associates originally suggested the County spend $24.7 million to fully fund the four projects. The county will fund about 62% of the total cost of the four projects. 

Assistant County Administrator Kristen Camareno presented an option to add a contingency fund for labor and material increases incurred during the project. Adding a contingency would increase the total costs of the project by about $6-10 million. Commissioners chose not to add the contingency fund.  

Several commenters opposed commissioners’ decision to partially fund the projects. 

The county has previously contributed about $19 million in federal dollars to strengthen early childhood education in partnership with Child Care Associates. 

One affordable housing project, Justin’s Place, will receive $1.5 million in fiscal recovery funds, about $2.5 million less than initially requested. The city is also contributing $1.5 million. 

Two other projects, Renaissance Heights and Casa Mia, will receive $3.5 million and $500,000 in federal emergency rental assistance funds from the county. The city is contributing $1.5 million in federal funds to the Renaissance Heights project. 

A sign outside of the Renaissance Heights project. The Tarrant County Commissioners Court recently approved $1.5 million in federal funding for the project. (Rachel Behrndt | Fort Worth Report)

The city of Fort Worth is expected to vote on allocating its portion of the housing funds Sept. 12.

“At the end of the day, we will have spent $21.8 million on housing, which is approximately two-thirds of what we had estimated that we would spend on housing,” Commissioner Roy Brooks said. “That 21.8 million will give us 110 additional units of affordable, deeply affordable housing.”

County Judge O’Hare pointed to the two allocations as a significant investment in housing and childcare. 

“We didn’t not fund childcare and we didn’t not fund housing. We just didn’t allocate every single penny that was requested,” O’Hare said. 

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Miranda is KERA's Fort Worth reporter. She is always looking for stories of the weird and wonderful — whether it’s following a robot around a grocery store or sampling cheeses at a Wisconsin cheese...

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report in collaboration with KERA. She is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri where she majored in Journalism and Political...