Uneven funding illustrated; Vela’s office finds large per-capita disparity

Cameron County and other Texas counties and cities with populations under 500,000 appear to be getting the short end of the stick when it comes to distribution of federal Coronavirus Relief Funds.

According to an estimate from U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela’s office, the county and its cities together would have been eligible to apply for about $180 per capita rather than $55 per capita in CRF money through the state had the governor’s office used the same per-capita formula as the U.S. Treasury Department in its distribution of CRF money.

Cameron County itself, based on the population of its unincorporated areas, is eligible to apply for $5.5 million in CRF funds under the $55-per-capita formula, but would be eligible to apply for $18 million under the $180-per-capita formula.

The CRF program is part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act emergency relief package signed into law March 27. Texas was allotted $11.2 billion, including $5 billion for local governments, through the program. The way the law is written, U.S. counties and cities with populations over 500,000 were awarded their CRF payments directly through the U.S. Treasury Department, while counties and cities with populations under 500,000 are required to apply to the state for the funds.

“Some leadership in Congress did not trust the governors to take care of the big cities and big counties,” Vela said. “So they put in that counties and cities that had more than 500,000 people, they got it directly from the federal government. They took $3.2 billion and doled that out to cities and counties with 500,000 plus.”

Treasury allotted CRF money at approximately $180 per capita, according to Vela’s office, compared to $55-per-capita formula that the governor’s office is using for counties and cities below the 500,000 mark, including Cameron County, which has an estimated population of 423,163.

The governor’s office on May 11 sent a letter to the 242 counties with populations under 500,000, and the cities within those counties, inviting them to apply for a portion of the remaining $1.85 billion in CRF money. The funds may only be used for COVID-19-related expenses and not revenue shortfalls spurred by the pandemic and ensuing economic shutdown. Upon certification to the state that the grant terms will be obeyed, jurisdictions will have immediate access to 20 percent of their CRF allocations.

The city of Brownsville is in line for $10.2 million under the $55-per-capita formula, with $2 million immediately available upon certification. The money must be spent by the end of the year or it goes back to Treasury. Under a $180-per-capita formula, the city would have been eligible to apply for approximately $33.4 million in CRF funds.

The money is being distributed through the Texas Department of Emergency Management, which had not responded to a query about the funding disparity as of press time.

“My view is the governor needs to distribute that money the way the federal government did,” Vela said.

Cameron Count Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. said at a May 13 press conference that he considers the allocation disparity unfair.

“Those individuals in those 242 counties and cities under a population of half a million have the same exact needs,” he said. “The (COVID-19) numbers in Cameron County have been higher than one might have anticipated based upon our population. Needless to say, Cameron County along with many of the other cities and counties throughout the entire state have expended financial resources dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Multiple attempts to reach the governor’s office for comment were unsuccessful.