by Rachel Behrndt, Fort Worth Report
July 4, 2021
Over half-a-billion dollars will soon be sitting in the coffers of the city and county. The federal dollars, distributed through the American Rescue Plan Act, could be put into long-term investments that make a large impact across the city and county.
“This race is a marathon. It's not a sprint,” Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius said.
Months ago, CARES Act funding was used as an emergency tourniquet to stop the financial bleeding caused by the pandemic. This newest round of funding is meant to make long-term investments that will help communities bounce back and bounce forward into a more prosperous future.
Cities, counties and municipalities have to meet certain conditions to use the money. But administrators have a fairly wide discretion within a set of categories to use funds.
The process will include city and county staff identifying key projects they can fund using a one-time investment that will create long-term returns. City and county staff have presented a framework to use the funds to the City Council and the County Commissioners Court, respectively.
After taking the temperature of elected officials, city and county staff will reach out to community members and consult best diversity practices to come up with a plan to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars given over to local control by the federal government.
“Overall, the whole program is so massive,” Assistant City Manager Jay Chapa said.
Depending on the decisions staff and city council members make in tandem, the federal dollars are aimed to help the city get back to normal sooner and kickstart the local economy to make the money go farther, faster.
“We can get things that we have on the books projected to finish in five or six years, maybe happen in three or two years - so it actually accelerates,” Chapa said.
The plan will address a variety of areas of investment. For the city of Fort Worth, traditional infrastructure will be a priority, along with bolstering the tourism industry. The city and county said there will be a focus on improving minority-majority areas.
“Typically those minority-majority areas or older parts of town that have the biggest need for replacement of old infrastructure,” Chapa said.
Typically, the city's bond program funds the kind of capital improvements that would address older parts of town. The federal funds help that bond money go further and address projects that could normally be overlooked.
Top 10 capital improvements city staff wants to address
“By being able to put new dollars sooner into those areas, it helps get those parts of town closer to being on par with the rest of the city,” Chapa said.
One area the city of Fort Worth won’t invest in is direct payments to businesses. Instead, the American Rescue Plan Act provides alternative ways for business owners to get support outside of local discretion. Programs through the Small Business Administration like the Restaurant Revitalization Fund and Shuttered Venues Grant provide federal money directly to businesses.
Instead, the city will focus on helping businesses through investments in building the city's capacity to bring customers to town.
“We put actual capital projects for facilities associated with tourism on hold because the funding dried up,” Chapa said. “So we want to be able to move those forward and do anything we can do to bring people back to hotels sooner rather than later.”
Building capacity also means investing in tech. The American Rescue Plan Act specifically outlines investment in broadband infrastructure and cybersecurity as a valuable use of federal dollars. Widespread broadband is essential to ensure access to city services.
“People may not have the economic ability to afford internet service,” District 2 Councilman Carlos Flores said. “So that's where these things come in, and in particular, the areas that we're trying to help - the majority-minority areas.”
Where the money will go
County leadership outlined four areas of investment: preparing for the future, public health and wellness, revitalizing the economy and strengthening the community.
“This is really something that we build for the future, and that's what we're doing, such as in public health, in our infrastructure programs, in our nonprofit programs and our homelessness programs,” Maenius said. “These are futuristic in nature.”
The health and wellness goals outlined by the county include preparing for another major health event and building on trust already formed with the community.
“It's not just getting ready for another major episode, but to really grow a much healthier community in Tarrant County,” Maenius said.
Tarrant County's priorities also include goals like broadband and infrastructure investments including the improvement of county buildings.
The use of federal funds on the county level will also work in tandem with the county's bond program. Already planned Capital Investments Projects, like county jail improvements, can be completed faster, and the money can go further when bolstered with federal funds. These types of projects represent a one-time investment that can save money down the line.
“We want to make sure the money is spent where it will have the greatest impact,” Maenius said.
Tarrant County priorities
Tarrant County has not outlined the capital projects it has a high interest in using American Rescue Plan Act funds for yet. However, the county has pointed to its interest in:
Part of ensuring effective use of funds could mean the city and county collaborating on projects. For example, both the city and county governments have indicated an interest in using a portion of the funds to address homelessness.
“We need to ensure that we work together so that we can coordinate any activities that need to be coordinated that are multi-jurisdictional in nature,” Maenius said.
Councilmember Flores said projects already underway in his district to address homelessness could be pushed forward through additional investments. The federal funds could allow the city to break the cycle of recurring investments in short-term homelessness solutions.
“It'll enable us not just to fund it in the short term, but to lay the work so that we can do it more sustainably,” Flores said.
Most of these investments, aside from already planned projects, are ideas. The city and county have already received their first round of money set aside by the American Rescue Plan Act. CARES Act funds had to be spent almost immediately, leading cities to transfer lots of those funds to other agencies. These funds have until 2026 before they need to be spent.
The plan laid out so far is a framework. After elected officials approve the framework, officials will continue the process of planning where these funds will be used best.
“This is not something that within a week or two, that everything is going to be clear as crystal,” Maenius said. “What we're looking at is probably about four to six months before we can fully wrap our arms around it.”
Once city and county staff wrap their arms around all the areas of possible investment, the plan will still have to be approved by city and county elected officials.
“We don't want to jump ahead like we're assuming that they're going to be OK with everything,” Chapa said.
How to get involved
If you want to have a say in what projects get funded, here’s how:
The public can make suggestions through town hall meetings and focus groups as city and county officials work to produce a final plan. The meetings are yet to be scheduled, but the county will begin reaching out to United Way and Catholic Charities to get a sense of major priorities in the nonprofit sector. The city and county manager’s office will be leading the research and planning process.
To give input to the city, contact the Fort Worth economic development department at 817-392-6021 or email
email@example.com. To reach the county administrator, call: 817-884-1267.