Bexar County Commissioners Court directed more than $30 million of its federal coronavirus pandemic relief grants towards local mental health services Tuesday.

While the county has been slower than the City of San Antonio to spend American Rescue Plan Act funds, commissioners moved quickly to shore up mental health and gun violence prevention efforts in the aftermath of the horrific Uvalde school shooting.

The court approved an additional $1 million for a county-wide outreach and education campaign promoting gun safety and responsible gun ownership, plus $100,000 to distribute free gun locks.

“Things are getting worse, not better,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said, noting that previous gun safety awareness campaigns did not receive as much funding.

The court unanimously approved $16.3 million to expand an existing mental health collaborative — previously funded with $4.75 million from the county — to all school districts in Bexar County over the next four years.

More than $14.8 million will beef up mental health and violence prevention programs, including $567,000 for crisis in-patient beds for juveniles, nearly $7.4 million for 16 in-patient beds for adults who need longer-term care, $3.8 million to establish a pre-crisis system (including a “warm line” for people who don’t necessarily need to call a hotline or 911), $3 million to increase access to pre-crisis mental health services in impoverished areas and $114,000 for de-escalation and trauma training for law enforcement.

The initiatives were recommended by the Task Force on Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice, which Wolff formed in April last year.

“We are trying to move upstream to provide better education and support for individuals who either have a mental illness” or know someone who does, said Doug Beach, co-chair of the task force and board president of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health.

In April, Gov. Greg Abbott slashed nearly $210 million from the budget of the state’s Health and Human Services Commission, which administers health, mental health and substance abuse programs.

“The funding has been gutted and we are watching … the results of not putting attention [on mental health],” said Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4).

While Wolff and other Democratic elected officials in Texas have called for a special session of the legislature, Abbott has instead called for special committees to make policy recommendations for the next session.

Commissioners weren’t willing to wait that long.

“We can’t just stand by and watch as more people may be affected,” Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) said. “This is our way to try and make a difference as quickly as possible in the schools.”

He acknowledged that there is still more work to be done to address mental health and gun violence.

“We are not solving the problem just by making this investment,” he said. “We’re fortunate that we have some of the federal supplemental dollars to pay for this.”

While Commissioner Marialyn Barnard (Pct. 3) praised the county’s efforts to curb violence, she emphasized that she only supports the gun lock give-away because it is voluntary. She cautioned against any policy that would infringe on what she called the right to bear arms.

While we don’t want “people who are not responsible citizens” handling guns, Barnard said, “we also don’t want to step on our constitutional rights.”

She also supported expanding mental health programming in schools but cautioned against putting too much responsibility on schools.

“One of the reasons we’re having trouble with the shortage of teachers all across the state …is because the amount of pressure that’s put on school districts,” she said.

Schools should be focused on academic education, she said. Food, physical health and mental health should be the responsibility of “the parents, the community, the village that it takes to raise a child.”

But not all parents have the same access to mental health services, Commissioner Rebecca Clay Flores (Pct.1) said.

Counseling for a child outside of the school setting requires reliable transportation and likely time off work for parents, she said. “That’s why we need to be in our schools so that parents don’t have the pressure that they can’t afford to take off of an hourly job to take a kid across town.”

Clay Flores also expressed frustration that it has taken this long to allocate the money toward mental health, as this school year has already ended. But she successfully added amendments that may speed up the process of awarding funding to the organizations that will carry out the work.

Nonprofits that have already submitted applications for Bexar County ARPA funding will now be prioritized.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at