Council Preview: So Much Money, So Many Needs

Agenda touches on COVID-19, live music support, and transit

Photo by John Anderson

City Council will meet Thursday, April 24, to take up a relatively light agenda with a handful of items responding to COVID-19 and one looking ahead at planning around future transit.

A pair of items approves the use of about $2.5 million in grant funding from the Texas Department of State Health Services for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, as well as to hire additional medical personnel and provide them with needed supplies. Another $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, part of the federal relief package to confront the pandemic, will award the city a $2.3 million grant to be used to bolster emergency housing for people experiencing homelessness who are ill with COVID-19 or at risk of becoming so. That funding does not come with many of the restrictions that HUD normally applies to its Emergency Solutions Grants – such as requirements that people in shelter receive services, or that dollars be matched from the city’s General Fund – so Austin Public Health will have more latitude in how the money is spent.

Another HUD grant awards the city a little more than $272,000 in one-time emergency funds for people living with HIV/AIDS who are also confirmed to have COVID-19, or who are dealing with the economic fallout. The funds can be used for housing assistance or relocation services for those with HIV/AIDS or those living with them, if either need to self-isolate to protect against COVID-19.

Council is also set to approve the lease of the Embassy Suites at 9505 Stonelake Blvd. in Northwest Austin, a 150-bed hotel for use as an isolation facility available to those with COVID-19. The $2.1 million, 31-day contract includes four meals a day (and a snack) for any staff and patients at the facility.

An item from CM Kathie Tovo, held over from the April 9 Council meeting, would create a $1.5 million “Austin Music Disaster Relief Fund” to help vulnerable musicians impacted by COVID-19. Council seemed to agree in principle on the fund two weeks ago, but conflict between Mayor Steve Adler and Tovo over the source of the funds and the involvement of stakeholders resulted in the item’s delay. City staff on April 17 recommended the dollars come from the General Fund emergency reserve, as opposed to the Live Music Fund (created last fall and fed by hotel tax revenue) or the Relief in a State of Emergency (RISE) fund (created at the April 9 meeting, also from the emergency reserve). Adler and others objected to using the LMF, which was intended to support the long-term sustainability of Austin music; the city Music Commission’s LMF Working Group voted on April 13 against using those funds for disaster relief. It’s not clear yet how the new fund would be used; staff has also recommended that the money be distributed as matching grants by a third party.

The most notable non-COVID item, from CM Ann Kitchen, tasks staff with exploring how the city can prevent low-income Austinites from being displaced by future transit infrastructure projects, like the $9 billion Project Connect recommendation unveiled in early March. No one at City Hall nor Capital Metro has said if they still expect Project Connect to be on the November ballot, but Kitchen (who also serves on the Capital Metro board) hopes her resolution will help guide future spending even if a scaled-down version of the plan moves forward; her proposal asks City Manager Spencer Cronk to establish a cross-departmental team to examine what investments the city could make to prevent displacement. She said at Council’s work session on Tuesday, April 21, said the resolution is “more about ensuring funding for housing and transit are aligned” then creating any new fund now.

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