Houston City Council member questions city's CARES Act spending

Sunday, November 8, 2020
Houston City Council Member questions CARES Act spending
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Is CARES Act money being improperly earmarked in the city of Houston? One councilmember who challenged the line items spoke to ABC13.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A Houston City Council member this week opposed the way the city's CARES Act funds are being used - a first since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Greg Travis from District G on Houston's west side said, "We're not prioritizing, and we're just trying to spend the money, and I don't think that's the right approach."

Travis said he voted against the most recent list of emergency relief purchase orders due to several concerns.

"There's a lot of items there that I don't think are valid, and there's a few that I don't really think are high priorities," he said.

This week's list, totaling more than $14 million, included PPE like masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, but it also included two other items that concerned him: "laptops, batteries, keyboard sets and docking stations to enhance telecommuting for HPW associates, and additional audio-visual equipment necessary to enhance communication with internal and external stakeholders."

"That just sounds like a bunch of fluff to justify that we're going to get audio-visual equipment," he said. "I'm not saying we couldn't use some of that, but do we really need to do that under the Emergency CARES Act?"

The week prior, he said city council was asked to approve more than $300,000 of emergency funding on new trash bins.

"I really questioned the connection with COVID-19," said District A Council Member Amy Peck. "Even though it's not city tax dollars, it's still tax dollars. It's not free money, and so I'm trying to be a good steward of that money."

Mayor Sylvester Turner said more people at home meant trash cans are getting used and damaged.

The Solid Waste Department requested to purchase 7,000 new trash cans.

"The amount of trash being put out this year has increased by over 60% and that's because people are working remotely from home, or they're staying at home," said Turner.

Travis worries not enough money is going directly to Houstonians in crisis.

"For every dime we spend somewhere else, I'm like 'Why can't we be spending it with these people?'"

Mayor Turner argues the requests are reviewed before being presented to city council, and they are following federal criteria.

"We're right within the guidelines," Turner said. "The good news is that we're being very, very transparent. All of it is being laid out in granular detail for people to see."

Even with the questions and concerns over spending, city council has approved every single purchase order requested including the trash cans.

Travis explains the format for voting on the emergency purchase orders is another concern as it is done in bulk.

"The overall process by which we are grouping these together, and we have to vote on them as one," he said.

When council meets virtually again next week, Travis says he is prepared to vote 'no' again on CARES Act spending for a second time if the items continue to be presented in a bundled package.

"I would like it to be where they come to us, each item is separated out as a separate agenda item, so we can discuss them and determine whether they are a valid item number, and whether there's not a higher priority," he said.

Mayor Turner's office sent ABC13 a statement saying, "City Council voted on and supports the current process for the Emergency Purchase Orders (EPO) utilizing CARES Funding. EPO Funding Requests are submitted to council regularly with supporting documentation for their review and approval of the agenda item. The items are grouped to expedite processing of the EPOs and to ensure that the City of Houston meets the timeline for expending the funds by December 30, 2020."

Houston was granted up to $405 million from the CARES Act, money that must be spent before Dec. 30 or the city loses it.

Turner's office told Eyewitness News that Houston City Council has approved $212,742,512.74 for use, $174,700,000 of which has been spent.

The mayor's office said more than half of the money so far has been designated for public health and safety which directly benefits Houstonians:

  • $30 million for rental assistance
  • $25 million for small business relief
  • $5 million for arts assistance program
  • $3 million for childcare assistance
  • $15 million for homeless initiative

Turner's office also said several other programs like a utility assistance program is still in development, and a small restaurant support grant will be presented to city council next week.

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