LHISD in line for CARES Act funds

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By ANTHONY FLORES

Williamson County is entering phase four of its Wilco Forward Program. The program was established to distribute the $93 million the county received from the federal government through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act.

Phase one focused on aiding small businesses, phase two on emergency services, and phase three focused on utility aid. Phase four focuses on reimbursing funds to school districts for COVID expenses. The county also sits on a reserve of $17 million.

“We’ve been very conscious about our plan from the beginning. We received about $93 million through the CARES Act, and we’ve had that reserve that’s a little less than 20 percent of the money from the beginning,” said Williamson County Treasurer Scott Heselmeyer. “We did the small business program first, and then we did assistance for our cities and our emergency service districts. We have done rent utility assistance that’s ongoing right now, and now we’re doing the school program.”

Districts apply with the county to receive reimbursement. Applications have been sent to district schools, charter schools, and private schools.

“So, it’s going to be a grant program, and the ISDs, charter schools, and private schools are eligible. I’ve been working with all the school districts to put a plan together,” said Heselmeyer. “In a basic framework, we are reimbursing COVID-related expenses up to $100 per student. The schools are going to provide us with their enrollment numbers. We’ve come up with a system for that.”

Liberty Hill ISD Superintendent Steve Snell said the district is likely to receive as much as $549,000 based on enrollment, but the exact number of students based on County stipulations and official enrollment has not been determined.

“We have to fill out the forms and request it,” Snell said. “It is to cover some of the costs from the pandemic and the strings attached is it is going to be based on our enrollment based on the October snapshot and the student has to live within the boundaries of Williamson County.”

The funds will not cover all COVID-related expenses in LHISD, as the district has projected it has spent about $149 per student so far on those things specifically, but Snell said the funds are a huge boost and something he is very grateful to the county for.

“Counties, cities and even our federal government are trying to help out small businesses, and trying to help out other organizations, but Williamson County is one of the very few counties in Texas that has released funds to schools,” he said. “The fact that it will touch every single school kid in Williamson County, that’s huge. This is the County stepping up and taking care of kids. It is going to help us tremendously on our budget.”

County Judge Bill Gravell said providing reimbursement to schools is critical.

“Our schools have worked incredibly hard through this pandemic to keep our students safe while also keeping them engaged in learning,” said Gravell. “We have asked schools and teachers to do something that has not been done before on this scale. We must support them in this effort through our CARES Act funds.”

The county created a set budget for each city from its CARES funds. Even combined, Williamson County cities remained far under the set budget.

“What this shows is also about the preparedness of our cities. We were unsure of what the costs were going to be when this started,” said Heselmeyer. “We budgeted $20 million for our cities, and as we sit today, combined the cities of Williamson County have had less than $1 million in reimbursement. There are two factors to that. First, we, as a county, took care of a lot of things in the early days of the pandemic. Two is that our cities were very responsible in the way that they conducted their activities.”

Heselmeyer says the smart management of the cities is what has allowed them to reimburse schools, but expects to dip further into the funds before the year ends.

“There will be more need for city funding, but it’s not going to come anywhere close to $20 million. So, we were able to reallocate $12 million of that to the school districts instead of dipping into that $17 million that’s left in reserves,” he said. “That’s working out well for us. One of the challenges we do have now is that there’s an expiration date of December 30th on the CARES funds. I anticipate that getting extended, but as we sit right now, that has not happened.”

Heselmeyer credits the county’s unified efforts for its successful handling and distribution of CARES funds.

“Our county commissioners court has done a good job of working together. I’ve been helping coordinate the plan, and every time we talk about the plan,” he said. “They work together really well, and we’ve had unanimous votes on how we do this. Frankly, I think we’ve done a lot better than a lot of other larger local governmental entities that got CARES funding.”

Heselmeyer says the efforts of the county to get CARES funds out quickly and efficiently has helped taxpayers in the long run.

“We set priorities and went to work on them. We were able to get our funds out the door when needed. I think that has helped many of our small businesses stay in business, they’re still struggling, but I think we’ve helped many of them stay afloat. It’s helped with the bottom line for our cities, which helps the taxpayers. Now I think we’re going to help with the bottom line of the school districts, which will also help the taxpayers.”

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