Drive-thru testing

The Denton County Health Department had its first drive-thru COVID-19 testing site on Saturday morning. County officials estimate they have spent about $2 million on personal protective equipment and testing since the pandemic began, spending that will be reimbursed by the CARES Act.

Hundreds of millions in federal relief is flowing into Denton County to stem the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But getting a handle on exactly how much is coming from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to Denton County and where it’s going has proved elusive. Aides in Congressman Michael Burgess’s office said late last week they were still searching for a tool with the tally.

Some of the largest known allocations went to Denton County, the Denton County Transportation Authority and the county’s colleges and universities.

According to aides for Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, Texas received $11.2 billion received from the CARES Act. Of that total, 45% was headed to local governments. Eighteen jurisdictions with a population of 500,000 or more received a wire transfer directly from the U.S. Treasury two weeks ago. Denton County, population 861,000, received $147 million.

The allocations were based on a formula from 2019 census estimates. By comparison, aides said, Tarrant County and the city of Fort Worth each received $209 million. Last week, the city of Dallas announced local relief programs funded by its CARES allocation.

Denton County Judge Andy Eads said county commissioners already approved about $735,000 to Denton-area nonprofits responding to the crisis, including $260,000 to the United Way of Denton County for rental assistance.

Other programs are still in the works, Eads said, adding that the federal government prohibits the county from using the money to make up for revenue losses.

In other words, taxpayers may not get much relief from the budget shortfalls that come from lower sales tax revenue at either the local or state level.

State officials are wrestling with shortfalls, too. Nelson has been appointed to the Senate Work Group on Economic Impact and Budgeting. Aides in Nelson’s office expect another round of CARES funding going to smaller counties, but federal guidance for that is still coming.

Another $23.4 million in CARES funding goes to the Denton County Transportation Authority from a special allocation just for transit agencies. Unlike the county’s wire transfer, however, DCTA will be reimbursed for both capital expenditures and costs related to the pandemic.

In a news release, agency officials said they expected the allocation will fill the gap created by decreased sales tax revenue. More than half of DCTA’s annual $45 million budget comes from sales tax collected in Denton, Highland Village and Lewisville.

“This aid reflects how public transit provides a critical lifeline for many communities in Denton County and across the nation,” DCTA CEO Raymond Suarez said in a prepared statement.

The agency has cut some bus routes as ridership plummeted, but a crew is still driving Monday through Saturday. Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents the drivers, has requested protective equipment, passenger limits and hazard pay as consideration for being on the front lines in the pandemic. Transit drivers around the country have contracted the virus, and at least three dozen have died.

Nicole Recker, vice president of North Texas Mobility Corp., DCTA’s subsidiary that runs the bus system, said that they are reviewing the request and “working through the proper channels to respond accordingly.”

Denton Mayor Chris Watts, who serves on the DCTA board, said the board has not discussed how the money will be allocated.

The University of North Texas, Texas Woman’s University and North Central Texas College are also receiving CARES funding based on their student populations.

UNT expected to receive $29 million, half to cover costs and losses associated with the pandemic and the other half for direct student aid, but recently learned it would receive an additional $2.1 million because it has been designated as a Hispanic-serving institution.

President Neal Smatresk said that the biggest burden many students face now is financial insecurity.

“These funds are intended to help students pay their bills and stay in school so they can earn their degrees as planned,” Smatresk said in an emailed statement.

TWU expects to divide its $8.9 million allocation the same way, between covering costs and losses and for student aid.

Few of TWU’s expenses are eligible for CARES, according to Matt Flores, a university spokesperson.

“The eligible expenses for the university are for items to assist students in their online education pursuits, e.g., loaner laptops, increased licenses,” Flores wrote in an email. “Other than that, it is to offset expenses the students incurred — housing and dining refunds, or to offset costs of services they can’t use anymore, such as the [recreation centers].”

North Central Texas College is expected to receive $3.9 million in CARES funding.

Other big checks will also come to local governments as reimbursements from federal disaster funds or from program waivers. In program waivers, long-standing federal programs get retooled but essentially pay for the same thing. For example, Denton ISD should be reimbursed for preparing and distributing meals that used to feed kids twice a day on campus. Since schools were closed, the district has distributed more than 410,000 meals and been reimbursed about $218,000 so far, according to the district’s chief finance officer, Scott Nevin.

Some of the largest chunks of federal relief are coming to individuals and families one check at a time, like the $1,200 stimulus checks many people received last month — money that isn’t really tracked the same as other allocations.

Yet the Texas Workforce Commission has determined about 31,000 workers in Denton County were eligible to receive unemployment benefits last month. If each worker also receives a $600 weekly benefit from CARES Act, that’s another $19 million flowing into Denton County each week.

Similarly, about $21 billion in Payroll Protection Program loans were approved in Texas during the program’s first round, which could mean tens of millions more in CARES funding for Denton County. A widely cited report contains few details about where those loans landed.

After adding more money to help small business funds that came up short, some leaders in Congress say they want to wait and see how the stimulus performs before allocating more aid to the crisis.

Other leaders said relief for local governments, which have also been hit hard by the pandemic, was in the works.

The CARES Act was originally estimated to cost $2.2 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office has since revised the estimate down, to $1.76 trillion.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.

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