The Marble Falls City Council met Tuesday, Dec. 7, to discuss how best to spend $1.74 million in federal funds. Staff photo by Brigid Cooley
The bulk of $1.74 million in federal Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Funds will go toward water and sewer infrastructure projects, the Marble Falls City Council agreed at its regular meeting Tuesday, Dec. 7. A $250,000 allocation to Baylor Scott & White Medical Center-Marble Falls was cut out in the 5-1 vote.
As part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program provides financial assistance to non-entitlement units of local government, usually those with populations of under 50,000 people.
The allocation for Marble Falls is to cover specific costs incurred between March 3, 2021, and Dec. 31, 2026, said Marble Falls Fire Chief Russell Sander during the meeting. Funding is released to the city in two separate payments. The first was received this summer; the second is scheduled for release in the summer of 2022. How the money is used has to be decided by a vote of the council.
Of the 15 proposed projects, 11 were geared toward water and sewer infrastructure updates.
“Staff prioritized use of the funds for the water and sewer infrastructure due to (Texas) Senate Bill 3 that was passed in the last legislative session,” Sander said. “This Senate bill requires that the city provide uninterrupted water services during extended power outages.”
Members of the council spent about a half-hour discussing whether they should approve the proposed allocation to Baylor Scott & White. The money was designated to help offset excess pandemic-related expenses. Tim Ols, president of the hospital’s Hill Country Region, attended the meeting.
Councilor Bryan Walker objected to giving public funding to the hospital, which is a private entity.
“Each item that’s been presented is undoubtedly something that’s either going for the things that were identified that we needed during the freeze to help us maintain water pressure, upgrade the systems we have in place, and things of that nature,” Walker said. “These are things that benefit people that live here or, at least, trust us for supplying them clean water. The only item on here that doesn’t appear to directly benefit is the line item for (the hospital). My conflict is that we’re giving … money to something that, while it does benefit our citizens in a way, I don’t see as having a significant impact.”
Councilor Dee Haddock agreed, suggesting the funding be used toward another project, such as broadband infrastructure, which was listed as having a $200,000 grant funding allocation. Meanwhile, Mayor Richard Westerman voiced support for providing the hospital with funding, emphasizing the need for medical facilities within city limits.
Councilor Reed Norman was opposed to accepting any federal relief at all and ended up voting against the list of projects. He cited concerns over whether accepting aid would result in the city having to adhere to federal mandates requiring employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. He cited an October letter from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to all state agencies claiming that the federal government will soon link federal funds to vaccine mandates. Gov. Greg Abbott’s Executive Order GA-39 prohibits vaccine mandates in the state.
City Attorney Patty Akers tried to assuage those fears.
“There is nothing currently conditioned on the documents that I reviewed that would bring those executive orders into play as a condition for this grant,” Akers said. “My comment is that it’s an issue that bears watching. It is not a limiting factor at this particular time.”
Walker made a motion to approve the list of proposed projects with the stipulation that the hospital funding allocation be removed and that city staff continue to monitor how grant acceptance could be affected by federal executive orders and mandates. The motion was approved in a 5-1 vote, with Norman dissenting.