The Smith County Commissioners Court approved the first use of funds from its anticipated $45 million American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.
UT Health East Texas and Christus Trinity Mother Frances were each awarded $2 million dollars for bonus and retention pay for essential nursing and staff personnel. Three local emergency care facilities — Hospitality Health ER, Complete Emergency Care Tyler, LLC and Exceptional Healthcare Inc. — each received $100,000. Funding to these entities represents approximately 10% of Smith County’s total ARPA funds.
Both hospitals face staffing shortages due to physical and emotional fatigue from the ongoing pandemic and pressures from the competitive nursing market created by outside staffing companies. Christus recently reported vacancies in over 250 critical positions.
According to Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran, the goal of the ARPA funds is to provide current staff members – RNs, LVNs, Certified Respiratory Therapists, Nursing Assistants, Patient Care Techs, EMS Paramedics, EMTs, Flight for Life RNs and Respiratory Therapists – with bonus and retention pay. Moran said the funding is for local medical personnel and not contract or state supplied staffing.
Jason Proctor, CHRISTUS Mother Frances Hospital president, said, “As they have repeatedly risen to the challenge, the support our caregivers have received from this community has been heartfelt and tremendously encouraging throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Smith County is one of the first counties to publicly support the work of their hometown hospitals, and we are appreciative of the recognition of our nurses, physicians and associates to being there day after day caring for East Texans.”
The commissioners court began the process of choosing ARPA funds in June with an initial presentation, soliciting input from citizens via an online suggestion form and establishing a task force charged with reviewing and prioritizing suggestions.
Moran said that “changing circumstances” have impacted the court’s decision making. The ARPA interim final rules released in August prohibited the county from moving forward with its initial projects: road and bridge construction and new courthouse construction.
Additionally, the surge in COVID cases has shifted priorities. “We need to react to that. As a local government, we have the authority and are in the best position to do that,” said Moran.
Where will $40.5 million go?
But how will Smith County spend the remaining $40.5 million? According to Casey Murphy, Communications Director for the Smith County Commissioners Court, the ARPA task force received 14 suggestion forms from seven different individuals and organizations as of Monday afternoon, September 27.
The 14 suggestions encompass the following areas of service and projects:
Hospital assistance — 1
Mental health services — 1
Broadband services — 2
Homeless assistance — 1
Small business assistance — 1
Non-profit assistance — 3
Public service assistance —1
Utilities infrastructure — 3
Economic development —1
Broadband internet service proposals
Don Bell, Smith County Chief Information Officer, presented the court with a proposal for expanding internet service within the county.
Bell said the county could use ARPA funds to build four to six towers at strategic locations – most on county property – and provide tower access for wireless internet service providers (ISPs) to include rural areas. The cost of the project is estimated at $1.5 to $2 million.
If the four-tower proposal is implemented, line of site coverage should be approximately 83% of the county. The far north, northwest and eastern sections of the county would still be unable to receive service. The addition of two more towers should provide full service to the county.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Joann Hampton said she would have to see more coverage in the northern part of the county and more information before she could “jump on board.”
Moran reminded the court they budgeted for radio equipment purchases in fiscal year 2022. “It looks like it (radio equipment) is probably going to be an allowable expense under ARPA,” he said. He said other counties have done so, and Smith County will probably follow suit unless there are objections.
“Using ARPA funds for the radio expense will save us hundreds of thousands of dollars this year,” said Moran. The commissioners unanimously agreed with using the ARPA funds for radios.
Mental health services
Precinct 1 Commissioner Neal Franklin reviewed information from the Smith County Behavioral Health Leadership Team regarding mental health services. Initially, the county had hoped to build a free-standing approximately 16-bed facility to serve as a crisis or extended observation facility. Now, that plan is deemed too costly.
“The capital expense is not the issue. The issue is the ongoing operating expense estimated to be $2.5 to $3 million annually,” said Franklin. Even through collaborating and using public or private funds, Franklin said, “That’s pushing the envelope.”
Alternatively, commissioners are considering a multi-disciplinary response team approach to mental health services. Representatives from Tyler Police Department, Smith County Sheriff’s Office, emergency medical personnel, The Andrews Center, Smith County’s Mental Health Authority, have been meeting to this end.
“It looks like a real possibility,” said Franklin. “Law enforcement, emergency medical personnel and a mental health worker – all respond to a call when the dispatcher perceives a mental health need,” he said.
Franklin said the response team approach affords early contact and intervention as well as follow-up contact for medications and treatment appointments. The leadership team is considering details, including estimated costs, for implementing a mental health response team approach.
Further, The Behavioral Health Team is looking at supporting mental health programs through the Children’s Advocacy Center. Moran said he had been contacted by Camp V Tyler, a veteran and active military resource center. “Maybe we can do some investment there and strengthen their mental health services,” said Moran.
The court instructed Commissioner Franklin to continue developing the multi-disciplinary response team approach; and to investigate Children’s Advocacy Center’s construction project and Camp-V services to see how ARPA funds might be utilized.
Other ARPA considerations
Moran said the commissioners’ court is still in conversations with County Sheriff Larry Smith about potential jail expansion under ARPA allocation.
He also said the Tyler Economic Development Council has requested $500,000 to establish a revolving cash fund to pay for site assessments for potential new development. If the developer acquires the site, they are required to reimburse the cost of site assessments to the fund.
According to Moran, the TEDC has already identified 67 potential development sites in Smith County. Having site assessments completed when a developer looks at the property enhances sale potential. Hampton said she would like to know where those sites are located before moving forward.
Moran wants to pursue this idea. To his knowledge, no county in Texas has this type of program. If Smith County initiated the program “It would put us ahead of the game in trying to attract new businesses here,” he said. Moran said he would invite Scott Martinez with the TEDC to make a presentation to the court.
As for other potential uses for ARPA funds, Hampton said she wanted to hear more about the water and sewer infrastructure needs – both new construction and repair needs.
The commissioners’ court will continue its discussions and decision-making regarding the use of ARPA funds. Individuals and organizations may continue to submit suggestions for ARPA funding.
Moran said, “It is a rolling process. We have two years to make allocations.”
Brenda McWilliams is retired after nearly 40 years in education and counseling. When not traveling she fills her days with community, charitable, and civic work; photography; writing and blogging at Pilgrim Seeker Heretic; reading, babysitting grandchildren, and visiting with friends. She enjoys walking at Rose Rudman or hiking at Tyler State Park. Brenda and her spouse, Lou Anne Smoot, the author of Out: A Courageous Woman’s Journey, have six children and seven grandchildren between them.
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