Amira Van Leeuwen | Staff Reporter
HAYS COUNTY — The Hays County Commissioners Court awarded a contract to the Ardurra Group, Inc. to serve as the Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) Program Manager during their meeting Tuesday, February 15.
Hays County’s COVID-19 ERA program had lost an additional $1.7M in federal grant funding Feb. 10, 2022, from not hitting the targeted milestones in the distribution set by the U.S. Treasury Department. In December, $772,791 was reallocated by the U.S. Treasury Department for the same reason. To date, the Hays County ERA program has lost nearly $2.5 million of the $6.9 million ERA1 Grant from the U.S. Treasury Department.
Hays County is periodically reviewed by the Treasury Department to assess how much funding has been distributed. The ERA program has paid out about $1.2 million to landlords, utility companies and hotels since it began in July 2021.
Jeff Thompson, a retired pastor and leader with Corridor Interfaith Alliance for Families (CIAF), a coalition of religious congregations and nonprofits in Hays County, said CIAF was “dismayed” that the county had just announced another $1.7 million in unspent rental assistance for the federal government on top of the $772,791 in unspent rental assistance of the county returned to Washington in September.
“Hays County Residents cannot afford for their hard-earned tax dollars, earmarked for Hays County, to be redistributed to other counties because of the lack of administrative competence,” Thomson said.
Thompson said CIAF calls on all those running for Hays County office to spend their ARPA funds including rental assistance dollars expediently.
“We hold our county commissioners court to the highest accountability and competence when it comes to the administration of public dollars and programs. Hays County residents facing economic hardship and eviction cannot afford to have one dollar lost for the lack of effectiveness and efficiency in county programs,” Thompson said.
Since the departure of the former program manager, the ERA program has processed 155 ERA tickets for assistance and paid out more than $430,000. Another $113,000 is committed to hotels for housing stability.
“There’s a lot of eyes on this and it’s important that we move forward as quickly as we can to bring somebody on board that can assist us,” Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe said.
The approval of the ERA Program Manager authorizes staff and General Counsel to negotiate a contract and execution of a standard Professional Services Agreement once negotiated and approved.
“Looking at those proposals, I’m really excited because it appears this firm [Ardurra Group, Inc.] can hit the ground running in a few days and improve upon the program that we have and offer some assistance that I think is probably needed,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Walt Smith said.
According to Crumley, the program’s efficiency has improved dramatically since January.
“As of yesterday [Monday, February 14] at 5 [p.m.] we’ve had 357 open cases and of those, 185 were pending citizen completion, 139 were under ERA staff review and 33 were under the auditor’s review,” Crumley said.
The program has also made changes to ensure a better payment process within the program.
Although hiring full and part-time staff has been challenging due to a lack of applicants, the program is continuously working with the nonprofit organizations that assist those in their programs for housing stability.
Applicants are able to provide Justice of the Peace officers with documentation showing that they have applied or are in the process of the program.
“Now there are still evictions going on that are not related to payment, we can’t get in the way of that, we can’t do anything about that, but any eviction hearings that are due to lack of payment all the JP’s know that if they’ve applied, they’re in the process, they’re not supposed to get evicted,” Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra said.
Since July 2021, the county’s COVID-19 ERA program has distributed $1.2 million to landlord utility companies and hotels. Between July 2021 and December 2021, the county has also distributed approximately $700,000 and assisted roughly 380 applicants. Hays County has also paid out more than $480,000 and assisted 188 additional applicants along with $113,000 that will be committed to hotels for housing stability.
Hays County Auditor Marisol Alonzo explained misconceptions about the potential misconceptions of income verification when applying for the ERA program.
“I think there was a misconception that in the beginning we had guidelines that were approved by the Treasury and the Treasury made changes and we made as well. In addition to the income verification, we also have to report to the U.S. Treasury whether we are paying rent in arrears, paying rent in the future, whether we’re paying utilities and arrears or future utilities,” Alonzo said.
Alonzo said that they do require a ledger that shows them what month residents are behind on the rent. In addition to a ledger, the Hays County Auditor’s Office also requires a W-9 form.
“The reason we require that form is because the Hays County Auditor’s Office will issue 1099-G’s for the assistance,” Alonzo said.
The Hays County Auditor’s Office has contacted landlords to let them know the tickets are available and is working with the case managers and caseworkers.
“We will continue to work hard and we are looking forward to new project managers so we can let them know where the efficiencies are,” Alonzo said.
The full video of the February 15 Hays County Commissioners Court meeting can be found on their website. More information on the Emergency Rental Assistance Program and how to apply can be found here.