OPINION: Jefferson County should move faster with rent-relief aid

Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick gathered with county health officials and others to address a spike in COVID-19 cases that is beginning to tax local hospitals. He urged residents to seriously consider getting fully vaccinated. if they have not done so and to wear masks and practice social distancing if they are unvaccinated. Photo made Thursday, July 29, 2021 Kim Brent/The Enterprise
Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick gathered with county health officials and others to address a spike in COVID-19 cases that is beginning to tax local hospitals. He urged residents to seriously consider getting fully vaccinated. if they have not done so and to wear masks and practice social distancing if they are unvaccinated. Photo made Thursday, July 29, 2021 Kim Brent/The EnterpriseKim Brent / The Enterprise

Taxpayers want public officials to spend tax dollars wisely, which often means spending them slowly. Sometimes, however, this money is spent too slowly. That seems to be the case with the federal funds given to Jefferson County to provide rent relief for families facing eviction because of problems connected with the pandemic.

Jefferson County is one of 16 Texas cities and counties — out of thousands — that haven’t distributed at least 30% of the money they were given for this use. If it is spent soon, the county could see the rest of their money being taken back by the federal government. As of Oct. 22, the county had paid out only $1 million of the $7.6 million it received in December of 2020 from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

So far, 310 county residents have received help from this pool of money for rent, utilities or other Covid-related needs. That’s encouraging, but court data acquired by the advocacy group Texas Housers showed that about 400 local families received eviction notices from June to August of this year.

Granted, there are some reasons for the delay in moving this money to the people who need it.

“We weren’t set up to be able to reach out to people in need and process all of those applications early on,” said Jefferson County Auditor Patrick Swain. “There were also a lot of nonprofits we reached out to that said they couldn’t handle over $7 million dollars.” He said the county was also running two similar programs at once — a county-led relief program and a state-ran one.

Still, the backlog needs to be clear, and fortunately progress is being made. The South East Texas Regional Planning Commission will contract with six nonprofits in Jefferson County that already have support networks and connections to vulnerable families. County officials must monitor these funds closely and make sure that every resident who deserves help from this money receives it.

The pandemic brought a lot of challenges to government, and some hiccups might be expected. But even in situations like this — or droughts or hurricanes — public officials must step. This is what they are elected to do, and the leaders of county departments make far more than the average resident, sometimes more than $100,000 per year.

Being evicted is one of the worst things that can happen to a person or family. It shakes them to their core and brings on countless other problems in their life, often affecting their ability to work or care for their children. Congress realized this and allocated billions of dollars to the state to help vulnerable people avoid this predicament during the pandemic. That was commendable, but that money doesn’t do anyone any good sitting in an account somewhere.