Sierra Martin | Managing Editor
HAYS COUNTY – The Hays County COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program has lost nearly $800K in federal grant funding due to not hitting the targeted milestones in the distribution set by the U.S. Treasury Department.
The county received $6.9 million from the U.S. Treasury Department’s ERA1 grant program in January 2021, of which no more than 10% could be spent on program administration.
Following an unsuccessful effort to solicit an outside firm to manage the grant program, an effort that took approximately three months, Hays County Commissioners voted to handle the program in-house. The county hired a program manager and several staff members.
In December, the U.S. Treasury Department, from which the ERA1 grant funds came, reallocated $772,791 of the Hays County ERA program because the program didn’t meet targeted milestones for distribution. The county had submitted a program improvement plan to Treasury in September.
In the fall of 2021, county staff identified some process enhancements and improvements to expedite the ERA process and get funds paid to landlords, utility companies, and hotels in a more expeditious manner. The program manager then resigned in early January.
Griselda Vasquez is a Hays County resident who applied to the ERA program twice and said that a lack of staffing caused her application to not be viewed in a timely manner. After three months of not hearing anything from the county, she and her family were evicted from their home.
“I came to the offices to try to get assistance before my family was evicted and received no kind of feedback, support or anything,” said Vasquez. “On November 2, I had a sheriff come to my door and tell us we have 24 hours to evict our premises. I never heard anything. I didn’t know anything about what had happened was my application.”
After being evicted, Vasquez and her family slept in their vehicles for several days before receiving help from the HOME Center and being placed into a hotel.
Vasquez said she would sit in the county offices every day for a month to try and find out information on the status of her ERA application. One day while waiting, she spoke with Wesley Matthews with the Hays County ERA office, who processed part of her application. Because only part of her application was processed, Vasquez has not received all of the support from the ERA program.
“I am waiting, still on payment, and I’m about to be evicted again,” said Vasquez. “Because nobody has gone in through and finished applications. So I understand that you’re you have all this money, and you have all these people in need, but it needs to be distributed.”
The county’s COVID ERA program rolled out in July of last year. Since that time, more than 383 cases have been processed. More than $844,000 has been paid to landlords, hotels and utility companies. More than $100,000 is currently under review for payment to hotels.
“We will continue the COVID ERA program as long as there is a need and funding available,” said Countywide Operations Director Tammy Crumley.
As of now, the county’s program has more than $4.5 million remaining to assist those impacted by COVID-19 in terms of housing and utility payments.
“Our plan is to keep working to help those who have a need and who meet the federal eligibility requirements,” Crumley said.
On January 18, the Hays County Commissioners Court approved issuing a formal solicitation to find a new program manager, which could be a firm or an individual. The RFP was issued on January 20.
“With this RFP, we are focusing on the ERA program becoming more efficient and bringing in a leader who can successfully manage a high-volume, often high-stress program while continuing to adhere to U.S. Treasury grant guidelines and rules,” said Commissioner Walt Smith.
According to Smith, an additional focus will be for the program manager to conduct outreach in other areas of Hays County and not just San Marcos.
“At this point, my biggest disappointment in the program, not only is that it’s not getting the money out the door but it’s only been focused on one community within our within our county,” said Smith. “And we know that there are others out there who need that assistance countywide, and so this is an important first step to that.”
Smith added that the Hays County Auditor will continue to process payments weekly for all approved applications.
“We have an internal process to prioritize ERA payments for approved high-risk applicants that may be in jeopardy of eviction or loss of utility services,” Hays County Auditor Marisol Alonzo said.
While the search for a new manager takes place, Countywide Operations Director Tammy Crumley said the Hays County COVID ERA program will keep moving forward.
“We anticipate continuing our goal of assisting Hays County residents who were impacted by COVID and are at risk of being evicted or have already been evicted,” said Crumley. “We also look forward to finding a program manager who is able to lead the ERA team and meet all funding requirements while finding new ways to enhance efficiencies.”
Commissioner Smith said he is excited the court is moving forward with getting a Program Manager for the ERA program.
“The fact is is that we are at a point where I don’t want to see any of those additional dollars go back to the federal government,” said Smith. “And we have to have a workable program. It’s obvious that it’s not working, and I sincerely applaud Commissioner Ingalsbe, and I’m excited to work with her to try to bring somebody in here that can actually get the job done because that’s what we want in the community.”