Denton City Hall exterior for stock photo use

Denton City Hall

The Denton City Council extended the city’s stay-at-home order to April 30, allocated another $300,000 to the COVID-19 crisis and left the door open for more help to social safety nets as fallout from the pandemic started coming into view Monday.

The council’s move came at the end of a five-hour emergency meeting. The meeting included more than an hour of public testimony from residents, many clearly panicked about job losses, empty bank accounts and dwindling options.

George Ferrie, owner of Wine Squared and a District 1 council candidate for the postponed city election, said he has applied for the federal government’s new Payroll Protection Program. Part of the new Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the program is meant to keep employees on a company’s payroll, even if that business is closed or idle.

Ferrie said he has filled out three different applications and produced more than two dozen documents in the past two business days in order to get help from the program.

“I’ve done everything a small business owner is supposed to do, and I’ve heard nothing back,” Ferrie said, adding that’s why people are so worried. “That’s why we’re asking the people we see everyday [city officials] for help.”

Ferrie was the last of 14 people who asked city leaders for relief in paying rent and utility bills during Monday’s meeting. Several of them identified themselves as being part of Aid Network Denton, a new mutual aid group.

Denton’s latest stay-at-home order extends the municipal court closure to nonessential proceedings and suspends utility cutoffs through the end of the month. Earlier Monday, the Texas Supreme Court also extended its statewide stay on evictions for nonpayment to April 30.

The city already announced its programs and facilities are closed until May 4, the same date Texas Gov. Greg Abbott extended public school closures.

The city’s latest order aligns with Abbott’s statewide order from last week and a countywide extension expected out of the Denton County Commissioners Court on Tuesday. Businesses expressly deemed nonessential must continue to remain closed through April 30. Through the month of April, residents are expected to stay at home unless they are taking care of an essential need, such as buying medicine or groceries, or traveling to their job at an essential business — which is defined by state emergency managers.

Since Abbott appeared to have waived some state laws in his order, Texas cities have been scrambling to understand their authority in the crisis. The Bill of Rights in the state constitution prohibits the governor from waiving state laws — that right is reserved to the Texas Legislature.

City attorneys told council members that their peers are studying the governor’s orders to see whether they imply a “floor or a ceiling.” In other words, whether a city would be prohibited from allowing less or doing more in local stay-at-home orders.

While they sort that out, however, one thing was clear: The statewide order blocked cities from prohibiting religious services.

Council member Keely Briggs asked the staff whether any Denton churches had resumed services since the governor’s order, and the staff couldn’t answer. But the city also had not received word of any concerns or complaints, according to Sarah Kuechler, chief of staff.

Some of the worst COVID-19 infection clusters nationwide have followed a church revival in Kentucky, a funeral in Georgia and a church choir rehearsal in Washington state.

A brief report from the city’s finance director, David Gaines, showed the city was close to expending the initial $550,000 council members allocated two weeks ago to the crisis.

Council members agreed to release about $25,000 in matching funds and allocated another $50,000 to the United Way of Denton County, which has two funds supporting individuals and families at risk of homelessness. They also released another $50,000 to Interfaith Ministries, which helps people pay their utility bills.

And, they allocated an additional $200,000 to the city’s emergency spending for items such as personal protective equipment for city staff, deep-cleaning and security services.

Gaines told council members that the city’s finance staff plans to submit the expenses for reimbursement from federal disaster relief funds, which should cover about 75% of the spending.

Council members agreed they would revisit the latest allocations after getting more information from nonprofits in charge of the city’s social safety nets, including information on who’s applying and what the barriers may be in helping them.

But they didn’t agree to an open-ended request from Aid Network Denton for $1 million in rental assistance.

During a heated exchange with council member Deb Armintor, who championed the proposal, Mayor Chris Watts said the city doesn’t have unemployment data or other measurements to understand the problem.

“We have no idea how big this problem is,” Watts said.

Watts said he would be willing to convene a virtual, roundtable-style meeting of local lenders to see whether it was possible for small, bridge-like loans to help the newly unemployed get cash sooner than initial benefits might get paid.

They also agreed to add another emergency item to the agenda for Tuesday night’s meeting: a resolution asking Abbott to call a special session of the Texas Legislature to address needs from the crisis.

Council member Jesse Davis said there’s plenty of fodder for a special session. Council member Paul Meltzer said he’d like to ask for a law that would stave off eviction and give renters and small business owners a real chance in getting caught up in payments.

During public testimony, a housing advocate reminded council members that evictions happen more quickly in Texas than in other states and that landlords can refuse payments once eviction proceedings begin.

The council meets again Tuesday, in closed session at 5 p.m. and then in a regular session beginning at 6:30 p.m. to consider special taxing districts for the development of Cole Ranch and Hunter Ranch.

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

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