County to seek firm to administer ARPA funds

·3 min read

Sep. 28—Ector County commissioners on Tuesday voted unanimously, and without comment, to seek bids from consulting firms vying to serve as an administrator of the county's American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Commissioners did not indicate a timeline for hiring a company. But their decision is another signal that they are unlikely to allocate requested funds to Medical Center Hospital and Odessa Regional Medical Center to help the hospitals meet escalating costs due to COVID-19.

Commissioners have not publicly mentioned the hospitals' request since the county received $16 million in ARPA funds in August.

On Monday, Ector County Judge Debi Hays questioned whether MCH and ORMC needed the funds. MCH has requested $7 from the county; ORMC $2.6 million.

"I'm not saying that I'm for, or against giving funds to the hospitals," Hays said. "The hospitals have surely done much good and have been heroes (during the community's struggle with COVID-19).

"But at some point, through the normal process, the question has to be asked, 'how much money do you need?'"

The hired company would be responsible for vetting applications and recommending applicants for commissioners to choose from, Hays said. The selected company would also conduct financial audits to make sure the money is used correctly.

Hays noted that both hospitals have already received millions of dollars in federal funding, and the city council recently allocated $3 million in ARPA funds to MCH and another $1 million to ORMC.

"They received a lot of money last year, and I believe they'll be getting more money in September," Hays said.

Several Odessa city council members have expressed concern that the county has done very little to help the hospitals during the COVID pandemic.

Councilman Steve Thompson recently pointed out that the city has repeatedly provided funds to help the hospitals and partnered with the hospitals to provide vaccinations and community outreach programs while the county has mostly sat quietly on the sidelines for the past two years.

MCH President and CEO Russell Tippin and ORMC CEO Stacey Brown said the recent COVID spike has taxed both hospitals resources and made it necessary to hire more medical staff, including nurses to care for COVID patients.

Tippin said he went before the commissioners in the summer and detailed how the County could help the hospitals and still get that money back from FEMA. "I know the court has not reached out (since then)," Tippin said. "The judge has not reached out ... We just keep pressing forward."

Brown added that the ARPA funding from the City comes with a contract that requires both hospitals to see that the City has the paperwork needed to recover the funding they earmarked for the hospitals. "It is absolute documentation of that," Brown said.

Tippin said the City has set the standard for how to communicate with other entities. "It's frustrating to have to rehash all this when there is no communication from the other side ... The one thing that has remained consistent is that patients need us. Not just Odessa, but all the counties of West Texas. ... These are tax dollars ... We are just trying to pump that into the taxpayer laying in the hospital bed."

Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved the proposed county general fund operating budget of $66,615,862, with about $18.4 million in reserves.

County commissioners also voted to maintain the current property tax of .365 for fiscal year 2021-22. The decision could increase or decrease overall property tax revenues based on whether property and mineral rates are higher or lower, Hays has previously said. Many homeowners, however, have reported a higher appraisal this year.