Plan would save up to $3.5 million in budgeted police, fire payroll

HARLINGEN — Most of the $3.7 million in federal funds earmarked to help the community recover from the economic downturn stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic might be going to pay a chunk of police and firefighter salaries.

At City Hall, officials are requesting the Texas Division of Emergency Management, which is administering money allocated through the federal Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES, allow the city to use between $2.7 million and $3.5 million to fund the salaries, officials said.

This year, officials budgeted $13.8 million to fund police personnel expenditures and $9.7 million to pay fire department personnel services expenses, Finance Director Robert Rodriguez stated.

The agency allows local governments to spend up to 75 percent of CARES allotments to fund public safety salaries, City Commissioner Frank Puente said Tuesday.

“Because our public safety personnel are exposed to the virus, this is how it’s justified,” he said. “There seems to be more calls because of the pandemic — domestic abuse, emergency calls, accidents.”

With savings that could range from about $2.7 million to $3.5 million, officials might fund programs aimed at helping residents or drainage upgrades, Mayor Chris Boswell said.

City’s CARES allotment

So far, the city has spent or committed $994,726 of its $3.7 million allocation, Rodriguez told city commissioners last week.

Of the city’s $3.7 million allotment, City Hall has received $751,608 so far, he said.

The federal government has set the end of the year as the deadline in which CARES money must be spent.

“We wanted to maximize our recovery from the CARES Act,” Boswell said. “We applied for as many things that might qualify.”

Community projects

Boswell cited the city’s CARES payment of $298,381 to help fund the project in which the Casa de Amistad convention hall was renovated into a 96-bed COVID-19 recovery center that helped 56 patients during its two months of operations.

In early August, the state opened the treatment center to accept hospitals’ recovering COVID-19 patients as part of a plan to free patient beds after a dramatic surge in cases pushed the Rio Grande Valley’s hospitals over capacity.

Now, officials are keeping the recovery center’s medical equipment in place in case a spike in new cases sparks a surge of hospitalizations, Josh Ramirez, the city’s public health director, said.

Boswell also cited the city’s $54,750 CARES purchase of 50 oxygen concentrators distributed to Valley Baptist Medical Center and Harlingen Medical Center to allow the hospitals to discharge COVID-19 patients with the machines to help them recover at home, freeing up hospital beds.

At Loaves and Fishes, the city set aside $225,000 to help residents hard-hit as a result of the pandemic.

So far, the program has tapped $101,000 to help about 60 families pay their rent and utilities, Executive Director Bill Reagan said.

As part of the city’s CARES program, officials also set aside $16,625 to help fund COVID-19 testing at Brownsville’s drive-thru test site, Rodriguez stated.