The ongoing debate about what to do with $10 million in federal funds roiled the Kerr County Commissioner's Court on Monday, but county Judge Rob Kelly made his feelings clear during a speech about giving the money back.
"I'm not ready to give the money back," Kelly said. "I want to keep it right here, under this court's control that we're not going to do anything with that money that this court doesn't approve. I'm saying let's make some interest on it."
Despite a court consensus that Congress and President Joe Biden are untrustworthy, Kerr County will not give the money back after an effort by Precinct 1 Commissioner Harley David Belew to do just that failed.
The overriding consensus was that the county's needs, especially regarding infrastructure, should drive the decision rather than a rhetorical question about the nature of federal government guidelines.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Don Harris motioned that the commissioner's court must approve all fund expenditures — the motion passed 4-0 (Precinct 2 Commission Beck Gibson wasn't in attendance). Harris also urged caution in spending the money.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Jonathan Letz said the county is facing serious issues when upgrading its emergency communications systems, including replacing an aging radio system that would align with the city of Kerrville's plan to upgrade its communications. The county's consultants said they believe the federal funding, designed around COVID-19 relief, could be used to offset these costs.
The American Recovery Plan Act controversy is around whether President Biden can use an executive order to make recipients comply with vaccine mandates for those who accept the funds, including county employees. Many are concerned that an executive order could force taxpayers to pay the money back if they don't comply. The one specific area that is forbidden is using the money to offer tax breaks.
Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a 43-page frequently asked question document that outlines all of the uses, along with prohibitions for the funding use. A careful read of the document reveals that the county would have broad authority to spend the money as it sees fit, including a new radio system covered in the FAQ.
The county has until Dec. 31, 2024, to determine how to spend the money. Kelly said the timing provides the county plenty of time to make good decisions and allows patience.
"I feel like we've got some time here," said Kelly, who was also pointing to a broader political picture of conservative majorities in the federal courts that could block mandates.
Kelly said the county has five years to obligate the funding and to spend it. Of course, Kelly is also banking on Republicans retaking control of Congress after the 2022 midterm elections — potentially blocking any executive orders from Biden.
The county received the first half of the $10 million earlier this year, while a second payment arrives next summer. It will take the county time to develop a spending plan because the initiative is broad. For example, the county could give Peterson Regional Medical Center a lot of money to help offset its COVID-19 expenses. In August and September, Peterson experienced its worst surge of hospitalizations related to the pandemic.
According to federal reports, more than 700 people have been hospitalized at Peterson since the start of the pandemic — an estimated stay of more than five days per patient. The impact on Peterson's emergency room has been even more profound — with an estimated 9,000 COVID-19 visits since 2020.
The county could also use the money for other infrastructure projects related to public health. Kelly said the Hill Country Youth Event Center was one example. The indoor arena's dirt floor needs to be replaced after decades of animal feces and urine have left it contaminated.
However, many of those speaking out against the funding also question the pandemic, its origins and lethality. Belew argued that the coronavirus, which he had, has been used to strip away freedoms. He motioned to give the money back, but his effort died due to a lack of a second.