Starr Co. to offer COVID-19 related assistance

Starr County will begin offering monetary assistance to residents and small businesses impacted by COVID-19.

The county commissioners court approved grant programs for small business, residents who need help with their utilities, and residents who need help with funeral expenses.

The hope is to provide some relief to residents who live in the rural areas of the county, according to Starr County Judge Eloy Vera.

Vera said the focus on the rural areas is because the cities received funding and launched their own grant programs for residents who live within their jurisdiction.

The county’s program will offer $1,500 to businesses that make less than $250,000 in gross sales, Vera said.

For residents that earn less than $30,000 per year and need help paying their utilities can receive up to $150.

The third grant program, which is for funeral expenses, is available for all Starr County residents who have lost someone due to COVID-19, regardless of whether they live within a city or not.

However, the amount of financial assistance available is still based on income.

People whose household income is less than $30,000 per year are eligible for a $2,000 grant while people with a household income between $30,000 and $50,000 are eligible for a $1,000 grant.

“The reason we had to put some limitations on it was because the state does not allow us to use more than 25% of what was allocated to us,” Vera said, explaining only a quarter of what the county received in coronavirus relief aid can be used to help the community. “I was hoping we could use around three quarters of a million, $750,000, for these three programs but 25% of what we received is only … is a little over $450,000.”

In May 2020, the state allocated $1,836,945 to Starr County from the coronavirus relief bill.

Through July, the county spent $42,152 on personal protective equipment, educational advertising and supplies, according to a breakdown published by the county.

The county spent another $41,877 on their drive-thru testing site and $201,050 on testing lab expenses.

Vera found the limitations placed on their funds a bit “disturbing” given that larger cities and counties — which received their share of coronavirus relief aid directly from the U.S. Department of the Treasury — did not have to deal with such restrictions.

“They could use whatever amount they wanted to to help members of the community,” Vera said. “That really constrains us quite a bit.”

Earlier this month, Hidalgo County launched their own “COVID Condolence Program” to disburse grants for funeral expenses to residents.

They allocated more than $2 million toward the program out of the $37 million Hidalgo County had in federal virus relief money.

The county received a total of $151 million from the federal government but $114 million of that was distributed to cities.

Vera said they’re trying to help as many people as they can with limited resources which is why they have tiers for different levels of income.

As of Sunday, the county reported a total of 117 deaths due to COVID-19. If the family of each person were to receive $2,000, Vera said that would deplete all of their money.

“I’m sure there’s going to be other deaths in our community, unfortunately, and we want to help as much as we can so that’s the reason we had to change some of our strategies,” he said.

The county was working Monday on putting together applications for the three programs and trying to make it available online.

“Hopefully we can start doing this this week,” Vera said.

To apply for funeral assistance, Vera said applicants will need the funeral home to submit a death certificate or other documents that verify the death was COVID-19 related.

Once verified, the funds would be disbursed to the funeral home. If the applicant already covered the expenses, then the funeral home would have to disburse the funds to the applicant.

“(We’ll) run until we run out of money,” Vera said. “Once we run out money, of course, we can’t help anymore. We’re hoping that … something happens in Congress where more money gets allocated and hopefully won’t have all these strings on it to where we can help more people in our community.”

“I realize that it’s really not enough,” Vera added, “but it’s a help and unfortunately that’s what we can afford so we’re trying to do the best we can with the resources that we have.”