Around 3.5 million Texans have filed for unemployment since mid-March, when the novel coronavirus led to the shutdown of nonessential businesses. Some of those stores and companies are scraping by. Others have shuttered for good. COVID-19 kills indiscriminately, but the economic pain has decidedly fallen on small businesses and working-class folks who don’t have savings to live off or health insurance to rely upon if stricken with COVID.
Last March, Congress passed and Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), the $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill that gives local government the financial resources to combat COVID and partially offset the economic damage caused by the pandemic. Tarrant County received $209 million in CARES funds, according to the county website. The first federal funds arrived April 22, and the first payments were divided out to cities on May 28 and to small businesses on July 28, according to a county spokesperson.
While the county maintains a large auditing department, including one specifically for disbursing grants like CARES, Judge Glen Whitley and the commissioners court approved a $476,280 contract to hire an outside consulting firm, Guidehouse, to help determine where CARES funds should be spent, among other CARES-related services. The four-month contract, paid using CARES funds, expires December 30 with an option to renew the contract for 12 months. CARES funds must be spent by December 30, according to federal guidelines.
Guidehouse was not the most competitive bidder, according to county documents. Runner-up Grant Thornton Public Sector, with 50 offices around the United States, scored 25 out of 25 on the county’s competitive pricing score, compared to Guidehouse’s 17.5. Several Guidehouse positions — Subject Matter Expert ($391), Engagement Partner ($310), Program Manager ($295), Project Manager ($249), Associate III ($200) — garner exorbitant hourly wages.
According to the county website, CARES funds are being disbursed through four pillars: COVID-19 testing, economic stimulus, rental assistance, and direct payments to cities. Of a total of $254 million in federal funds (including estimated FEMA reimbursements), the county has spent
$77,523,391.47 of those funds, according to Tarrant County Auditor Renee Tidwell.
“The Tarrant County Auditor’s Office provides Guidehouse a weekly update of COVID-related grants (other than CARES Act) awarded and the related expenditures,” Tidwell said in an email. “Guidehouse has been given access to [the county’s] accounting system to review and/or read only the county’s expenditures.”
We reached out to Dallas County to see who is handling their CARES funds disbursements. Dallas County administrator Darryl Martin said in an email that his county “created an internal CARES team to manage the funds. We have contracted with an outside entity to disburse the Small Business Assistance Grants and contracted with nonprofits to disburse rental assistance funds.”
A cursory glance at Guidehouse’s website shows it to be a capable and highly experienced company on these matters. Guidehouse’s consulting services may indeed help small businesses, nonprofits, and individuals receive much-needed financial help from Uncle Sam, but the decision to hire a private company to do public work has cut nearly half a million in much-needed funds from local businesses and individuals who aren’t fortunate enough to be earning nearly $400 an hour.
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