The Odessa Lion’s club held a lunch forum Thursday, featuring the first public campaign debate between incumbent Ector County Judge Debi Hays, and challenger Dustin Fawcett. 

Both candidates were allowed to start by giving speeches that highlighted their professional backgrounds, with Fawcett giving his plans and vision for the office if he is elected, and Hays highlighting her accomplishments in office. 

But then when the forum turned toward audience questions, Ector County Hospital Board Director Kathy Rhodes, who was present, directed a question at Hays regarding why the hospital has not been considered or awarded federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). 

In May of 2021, the federal government gave Ector County the first of two $16 million payments ($32 million total), with the second payment due in May of 2022, that the county can use for a variety of measures including helping the health care industry, fund areas of government impacted by a loss of tax revenue stemming from the pandemic, and investing in local infrastructure improvements, such as water and broadband. 

Odessa Headlines previously reported the hospital made multiple attempts to ask the county for some of the funding, even explaining a process whereby the county could be reimbursed for any funding given to the hospital by the end of the year, however, after the county judge was unresponsive to the hospital’s requests, the county opted to seek a consultant to review the distribution of the funds. 

Hays responded to the question, elaborating how the ARPA funds come with “strings attached” and because the county does not have the staff to manage $32 million to ensure it is spent within federal guidelines, and to make sure county taxpayers do not end up being liable, they decided to hire a consultant. 

“And that process has been completed,” Hays explained, adding further, “and in January, we should be announcing who’s going to partner with the county to make sure that we do that. And I can promise you that medical center and ORMC are at the top of our list.”

Fawcett quickly fired back, saying the county missed the deadline to be eligible for a reimbursement of those funds that would have effectively doubled the impact of those funds to the benefit of Ector County taxpayers. 

“A big facet of this is that December 31st was the deadline for the county to disperse these ARPA funds to possibly a hospital institution like MCH who had a $7 million request up until that December 31st deadline day…We failed on that,” Fawcett said. 

But Fawcett didn’t stop there and criticized the Judge’s statement that the county didn’t have the resources to oversee the distribution. 

Fawcett accused the Judge of spending $1 million to hire the consulting firm to advise the county on how to properly disperse the ARPA funds and criticized the lack of resources in the county attorney office, saying the county should be able to handle this issue internally. 

“Why do we not have enough staff? Because we’ve gutted our county attorney’s office, and that’s an issue in and of itself, “Fawcett said, continuing “The county attorney should be watching out for the folks and the way in which we handle money and the way in which we get those federal dollars and to say that it comes with too many strings. That’s your job too,” Fawcett jousted. 

Hays responded after a pause. 

“You know um, I’ll just say this, it’s always easier to stand on the sidelines and try to tell the coach, how to coach, and until you’ve sat in the seat, and you’ve seen all the emails from the Texas County Attorney Association to help guide you on what counties should do. I think that knowing that thirty-two million dollars is almost 50 percent of the entire county budget, and if it’s not spent correctly, and if any of that money has to be paid back then it will fall on your shoulders.”

Hays ended by saying she did not feel like the decision to hire a firm was a wrong decision, and that the entire court felt the same way because the commissioner court unanimously voted to approve hiring the consultant. 

Odessa Headlines reached out to both the Ector County auditor’s office and the county purchasing office, who indicated that 7 companies had bid on the consulting firm but would not release the amount of the bids. 

The county confirmed that a consultant has not been hired yet, but the decision should be announced later this month during the upcoming commissioners court meeting. 

Voting in the March 1, Republican Primary Election begins February 14, and citizens must be registered to vote by January 31. 

Matt Stringer is a journalist from Odessa, Texas.