Thursday, December 7, 2023

County allocates $5.1 million from ARPA grant to first responders


Following an hour-long discussion, the Hood County Commissioners Court approved the allocation of the $5.6 million pandemic-related American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds during its regularly scheduled meeting on Nov. 14.

In a 3:2 vote, the commissioners court voted to allocate $3.5 million to construct three new combined fire and EMS stations in Indian Harbor, Baccus, and DeCordova; $1.1 million to expand the current Pecan and Cresson Fire Departments; $500,000 to the Hood County Sheriff’s Department for new equipment; and $25,000 to the Hood County Constables for new equipment — resulting in a total of $5.1 million.

For new equipment, the Hood County Sheriff’s Office is requesting ballistic helmets, rifles, ballistic rifle vests and plates, and night vision goggles. The constables are likewise requesting ballistic helmets, vests, and plates.

According to the Hood County website, the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF), a part of the American Rescue Plan, delivers $350 billion to state, local and tribal governments across the country to support their response to and recovery from the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Awards under this program are intended to be used for projects benefiting Hood County that may involve the support of single or multiple organizations. Funds must be obligated by Dec. 31, 2024, and spent by Dec. 31, 2026.

As the commissioners court began its discussion on which departments and organizations would get the ARPA funds, Hood County Sheriff Roger Deeds addressed the court and explained that the grand total for the new equipment came out to be $527,338.72.

Cresson Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ron Becker also addressed the court and explained how many of the fire departments need new pumper tanker trucks. However, with the new trucks, the departments would also need specific facilities.

“We needed (a tanker truck), but obviously we got ours from a different source,” Becker said. “I do want to make sure you understand that without the facilities, these are not usable trucks. We can't have these trucks sitting out and water freezing in them, so you have to have facilities to store these types of trucks making sure that they're ready to go. I would just encourage you if you consider the need for those sorts of trucks to remember, such as in our case, that without the facility, the truck almost becomes useless.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Kevin Andrews suggested a different approach — pulling all of the requests for the funds together in a bigger package.

"We need to look into the buying power of what the fire departments can get for the money,” Andrews said. “Building wise is phenomenal, and I think that that is a great avenue to have the fire departments and EMS build these buildings. I (would) like to be able to say, ‘Hey, with the three fire stations that we talked about, that's a go, let's make that happen, and let's earmark some funding for it.’ There's still a lot of hoops that we're gonna have to jump through, but do we approve of that project as commissioner's court? We say, ‘yes’ on that and give it the green light, and then, you know, kind of bundle everything together.”

Hood County Judge Ron Massingill then chimed in, explaining that he previously spoke with Hood County Fire Marshal Jeff Young about purchasing four new pumper tanker trucks.

"They're about a half a million dollars apiece, that's $2 million right off the top,” Massingill said. “What I got from talking to all the different volunteer fire department chiefs is that none of them disagreed with the fact that we need the pumper tankers. All of them responded that if it's a big fire, all of the nine fire departments are going to be there, and they're all going to want to share the water. With (Cresson’s) and the county (buying) four more, we would have five 3,000-gallon tankers and that would really be enough.”

Becker then added that the Granbury Volunteer Fire Department had previously purchased a tanker truck in May, which meant there would then be six trucks.

"The pumper tankers have got to be the main piece of equipment that we all need, that everybody would share, that would benefit every single citizen, and every single volunteer fire department in the whole county,” Massingill concluded.

Andrews then suggested that the commissioners allocate the funds for the three new fire and EMS stations, new equipment for constables and sheriffs, the expansion of the Cresson and Pecan Fire Departments, the four new tanker trucks, and a couple of other needs for a total of $9.6 million. He suggested using the $5.6 million of the ARPA funds and then using the tax debt service rate for the remaining $4 million.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Nannette Samuelson said she agreed with Andrew’s suggestion, adding that the county may not have to use the debt service rate due to the excess fund balance.

“I do agree that we need to focus this money on emergency services, and that's the best thing too for all the citizens in Hood County,” she said. “I think that (both) fire/EMS and ensuring that we have the building expanded in both Cresson and Pecan (are dire) because those communities are growing so fast, and they've more than outgrown their buildings.”

Precinct 4 Commissioner Dave Eagle explained that the Hood County Sheriff’s Office will have an opportunity in January to apply for a $500,000 grant.

"I would say that, if that ask — and I'm acknowledging there's an ‘if’ there — but if the sheriff’s department is able to obtain that grant, then that takes away some of the burden off what we're doing right now, and then we've got the next budget cycle to take care of some of those other needs,” Eagle said.

Massingill said the grant for $500,000 would be an “epic win,” but the sheriff’s department needs the ballistic proof helmets and vests now — not four months from now.

“To have a county, you got to have protection for our first responders. That's number one,” Massingill said. “So, I'm for giving the ARPA funds to protect our community. That's where it becomes basic. I disagree with Commissioner Eagle about that. That $500,000 if and when it does come, we're not going to get any money before that.”

Massingill said that only two of the EMS/fire stations are needed currently: Indian Harbor and Baccus, and that the four tankers are also needed right now. He then asked if everybody could work together to get the same pumper tankers for half a million dollars.

Becker said the truck Cresson is going to get is almost a “carbon copy” of what Granbury already received. He said speaking for all of the fire departments, he believes everyone would be fine with that decision.

Samuelson then suggested allocating $2.2 million to the sheriff’s department, $2 million for four pumper tankers, $1.1 million for expansion of the Pecan, Cresson and Lipan Fire Departments, and then $25,000 for the constables, totaling $5.6 million.

Massingill then added an organization that he felt should be considered for the funds but had not yet been brought up: nonprofits.

"Rancho Brazos is the only one that's a qualified soup kitchen in the whole county, and it's a safety place for kids in the event of a big disaster where they can go up there, and the third thing that's important for Rancho Brazos is that they were being supported by the Methodist Church and they (have greatly reduced their support)," he said. “We've got to do something. That is a tremendous deal to the entire community to have that facility up here to where it can take in those kids. I just think that is just something we really have to have in my opinion, and, you know, to give them $500,000 to provide a safe place for kids in the event of a disaster and to continue the good work that they have because we've got the land up there.”

Massingill then suggested allocating $2.2 million for the three EMS buildings, $2 million for four pumper trucks, $500,000 for the Hood County Sheriff’s Department, and $500,000 for Rancho Brazos, totaling $5.2 million.

Samuelson then pointed out Massingill had left out the expansion of the Pecan and Cresson Fire Departments, spurring Massingill to suggest the idea of fundraisers.

Becker said they are working on the fundraisers and are also working to get a landing site for the helicopters.

Massingill then said it seemed like the court was in agreement with the pumper tankers, both volunteer fire departments, and at least two of the EMS buildings.

Andrews said he believed the third EMS building “may not be as high priority as the other two,” but that it is still a significant priority for the county.

Young then walked up to the podium and explained that the station expansions were on a five-year plan, noting they are currently in year two. He explained that in his opinion, the top priority for the fire departments are the three stations and the four tankers, adding that he agreed with Andrews’ proposal.

Young also suggested using the ARPA funds for the building projects and using the fund balance to purchase the tankers, which Samuelson agreed was a “really good idea.”

“With the ARPA funds, I think that we lean hard on the buying power of the fire departments and EMS, with building projects,” Andrews said.

Samuelson asked what Andrews had previously proposed. He explained he was going to “pull the Lipan building project off” as Lipan was the recipient of one of the tankers.

Samuelson then made a motion of allocating $3.5 million to construct three new combined fire and EMS stations in Indian Harbor, Baccus, and DeCordova; $1.1 million to expand the current Pecan and Cresson Fire Departments; $500,000 to the Hood County Sheriff’s Department for new equipment; and $25,000 to the Hood County Constables for new equipment — resulting in a total of $5.1 million.

Eagle asked about the pumper tankers, and Samuelson explained that the county has “capital, fund balance or debt.”

With a motion on the table, speakers were then allowed to come up and express their opinions or concerns.

GVFD Chief Matt Hohon asked that the court consider the impact their decision will have on the future.

"Twenty plus years ago, the commissioners were poised in the same position and having to make a decision that would impact the community,” he said. “That was the right decision, and that impact carried them for 20 plus years. The decision that you're about to make has the same impact. Look forward. I emphasize don't worry about tomorrow. Look at where we're at in 10 to 15 years because this decision has that impact. The departments know what they need. You got to remember that. That's why they’re chiefs and that's why they're there. They're telling you what they need, and it's not for tomorrow. It's for 10 years out.”

Hood County resident Tina Brown said she was “completely saddened by this court,” as she emphasized how much the nonprofits were hurting.

"All the law enforcement, the fire departments can all be funded by you,” she said. “The ARPA money was given to us to help. I know it can be used for many things, but it was given to help the underprivileged, the people who were hurting from COVID. I only heard the judge talk about nonprofits, about the people that are still hurting from COVID. I didn't hear any of you speak up. This is sad. I am ashamed of this court. I really am.”

Brown said Rancho Brazos needs to be put in multiple places around the county and pointed out that United Way of Hood County is struggling this year, with their numbers down to $25,000.

"This is the first time that this court has actually come forward and said what your priorities are,” she said. “These people need our help.”

Andrews chimed in saying philosophically, the government took the county’s money. He explained that the money wasn’t given — it was forcibly taken away by the government and later given back with certain “labels” on what the money should be allocated for.

"It's not easy to sit up here and say it's not okay for the government to take from somebody so that I can give to a nonprofit to feel better about myself. A person has every right in the world to go support the nonprofit out of their own pocket of their choice,” he said.

Brown then responded by asking Andrews why he supported Shanley House.

“Why do you get to pick and choose?” she asked. “Because you’re sitting there.”

“There’s a million good causes out there,” Andrews said. “There absolutely are, and to sit up here and confiscate somebody's money, and then decide which good cause to go to, that's not okay. That's not the position and that's not the role of government.”

Eagle explained that ARPA money is money that was “taken from us via federal income tax.”"

“The Biden administration came in and came up with this grandiose program under COVID to put money back into each community with numerous strings, and I knew that we had a Trojan horse coming in here with this money, in many ways,” he said. “But philosophically, I have to agree with Commissioner Andrews and disagree with the last speaker and there's nothing wrong with that. We can disagree, and you can be ashamed, but the bottom line is this, it's not our job to redistribute money. We have 33 501(c)(3)s here. Which one do you give it to? They all have great causes. But it deprives the individual the chance to donate to those outfits and to the charity of their choice.”

Eagle said that with an aged community, Hood County needs EMS services, adding that the county needs to give first responders “all the resources they need to protect us."

Precinct 3 Commissioner Jack Wilson then spoke out, pointing out that the court had “hashed this thing to the point that it’s ridiculous.”

“We're only talking for the 501(c)(3)s that met the requirements for the form that were put out less than $600,000 what was requested,” Wilson said. “I’m not taking anything away from the fire departments, EMS or the sheriff's department. I've been there. But you know, to sit up here and, you know, focus on one thing, and it's quite obvious that the three other commissioners on this court have had multiple sessions together, and I will accuse them of that now. It's quite obvious.”

“That is absolutely false,” Samuelson said. “I don’t appreciate that.”

“I don’t talk over you; you don’t talk over me,” Wilson said. “We've got people that live in $1 million and $2 million homes, we got people who live in $20,000 shacks. The benefits of these 501(c)(3)s far outweigh the benefits of these people that are living in those high-end places for what they don't do for the county and the citizens thereof. I will sit here and tell you based on the motion that's on the table now, I’m voting 'no’. Not against the fire department, not against the sheriff's department, not against the EMS, but because of the way it's structured.”

The court then voted on the motion that had previously been presented by Samuelson, which resulted in a 3:2 vote, with Massingill and Wilson voting “No.”