The Disinfectant Fiasco

Thousands of Fort Bend County residents lined up for the disinfectant distribution operation organized by the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office. “There has been an overwhelming outpouring of demand,” said Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls before County Judge KP George decided the operation was no longer essential and limited it to only county officials and employees. “I’m proud of the work we’ve done at the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office to distribute the disinfectant to more than 13,000 Fort Bend County residents,” said Nehls.

By Bob Hebert

When the Covid-19 virus hit Fort Bend County, two things happened almost at once. First, there was a run to stock up on cleaning supplies, toilet paper, Coca-Cola products plus a few other basic commodities, and second, social distancing became the norm. Those reflex actions were quickly followed by a state disaster declaration and then a county disaster declaration. Shelter in place orders followed and restaurants and bars were closed to walk-in customers, but pickup food orders could be filled. As a result, thousands of residents found themselves out of work or on unpaid leave with no idea when businesses would start up again. Many lived from paycheck to paycheck with little or no savings, and were stressed, not only by the health threat, but by the threat of foreclosure on their home or repossession of their car, with no ability to replace lost income.

One of the first positive actions by the county was to provide funding for the distribution of liquid disinfectant to Fort Bend residents willing to wait in their car in line for upwards of an hour to receive two bottles for home use. The distribution was handled by the Sheriff’s Office, and after some startup glitches, they were able to reduce the wait time to 20 minutes or so. People kept coming and supplies quickly ran out. A request for additional funding was vetoed by the county judge. His position was that there was plenty of disinfectant available in Houston, and he needed to use his limited funds to support first responders and county employees. The Sheriff then found donors to pay for another round of distribution, but that ended after only two days when supplies again ran out. Responding to requests from constituents, Vincent Morales, Commissioner of Precinct One, offered to use a special fund set up to benefit the Fresno-Arcola area to pay for additional supplies, but the county judge vetoed that too.

No one could argue the need to fund first responders and county employees in essential jobs during a declared disaster. No one could argue the need to make household disinfectant available to those in need during a disaster triggered by a deadly contagious disease. The county judge claims he cannot do both. He is mistaken, and his constituents suffer for his error.

Once the state and the county declare a disaster, the county judge assumes a great deal of power. While he cannot alter the county budget without commissioners court approval, he can unilaterally tap the county’s reserves for any amount needed to mitigate the disaster. A detailed record of all expenditures must be kept as the funds can be reimbursed by the state or federal government after the disaster period ends. The county has over $50 million in reserves. Surely he can find a few thousand dollars to help those he is sworn to protect and serve.

I had eight declared disasters during my sixteen years as county judge, and throughout all of them, I used three officials as my disbursement advisors: the Emergency Management Coordinator, the County Attorney and the County Auditor. They had to answer three questions for me: Was it a legal purchase? Was it reimbursable? Given other requirements, were their adequate reserve funds available? I then made the decision.

If we are still in a disaster when this is published, I urge the county judge to fund the program. If not, I urge the county judge to learn from this experience and remember: there are no partisan disasters – just people in need. If you make an error, and we all do, make it in an attempt to help those you were elected to serve.

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