Large grant to help District cope with COVID-19

Community groups also stand to benefit


The District of Houston council has decided to spend some of a $1.066 million grant it received this month to cover existing and potential expenses arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. And the rest will be kept in reserve in case it’s needed for any future pandemic response.

The money comes from a massive federal-provincial program in which local governments were given $425 million under for what’s termed a “safe restart”.

Just under half of the $522,800 the District will use right now, or $198,400, will cover anticipated revenue losses next year from the leisure facility and the arena. Both those facilities have tightened how many people can be inside the facilities at any one time and what can be offered.

The next largest amount, $100,000, has been set aside to assist non-profit and community groups with costs incurred because of the pandemic.

“Staff will now be reaching out to organizations in the community to understand the funding needs they may have,” said District chief administrative officer Gerald Pinchbeck.

Another $67,400 has been allocated to hire a second cleaner at the arena so as to ensure efficient cleaning of washrooms, seating areas and high-contact surfaces while $87,000 has been set aside to cover potential District staff shortages owing to the pandemic.

This would be a budgetary allowance “for either one or more temporary public works employees who could back fill any vacancies resulting from employees taking leave due to a suspected COVID-19 infection or due to a mandatory self-isolation period,” District chief administrative officer Gerald Pinchbeck wrote in a briefing note to council.

Personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies for public works, the fire department, the municipal office, parks, the leisure facility and the arena add up to another $40,000.

And council also decided to spend $30,000 on webcasting equipment so that members of the public and others can virtually observe council meetings and other District meetings.

Using the grant to absorb the leisure and pool revenue losses and the purchase of the webcasting equipment will buffer what had been expected to be a impact on the District’s 2021 budget.

With the above expenditures taken into account, the District will have $643,200 from the $1.066 million grant.

“Staff are not recommending pre-allocating the full amount of the funding in the event that more significant measures need to be taken to operate during the pandemic,” Pinchbeck wrote.

The “safe restart” money allocations will, in addition, benefit the District’s overall financial picture.

That’s because the $198,400 being used to offset anticipated revenue losses from the arena and leisure facility, losses that would otherwise be applied to the District’s 2021 budget and requiring some service cuts to ease an anticipated operating deficit, won’t be necessary now.

“This means that the District will be carrying a base operating surplus of approximately $143,000, which can be used to finance capital projects (i.e. roads, sidewalks, and other core infrastructure),” said Pinchbeck.

He had noted, in an earlier budget presentation prior to the “safe restart” money being announced, that the District’s ability to add to its reserves for major projects was constrained.