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Commissioners may soon pull the plug on Harris County’s pop-up hospital at NRG Park

HOUSTON – Channel 2 Investigates has learned Harris County Commissioners could pull the plug on the temporary medical shelter at NRG Park as early as next week.

The facility, with a potential price tag of $60 million, was designed by Garner Environmental Services, a Deer Park company, to help with a surge of coronavirus patients at the Texas Medical Center. But that surge never materialized and the facility sits empty right now.

Construction on the temporary medical shelter began just over two weeks ago and was finished in a matter of days. It features 250 beds and is equipped to handle an influx of COVID-19 patients.

“We don’t want to be caught flat-footed," said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo at the time. "We are working to stay ahead of this.”

The county’s contract

Channel 2 Investigated obtained the full contract between the county and Garner Environmental Services.

Among some of the items in it, we found highly compensated personnel ranging from:

  • Various safety officers receiving day rates of $2,875, $2,300 and $2,012
  • A finance section chief at $2,875 a day
  • Two public information officers at $2012 a day, even though the contract states “contact with the news media, citizens of Harris County or governmental agencies shall be the responsibility of the county.”

“Obviously, the county has a lot of public information officers that could be given this task," says Ed Emmett, former Harris County Judge and current KPRC 2 Political Analyst. “It’s a lot of money, $60 million, does that make sense,” asked Emmett after we showed him the contract.

Tracking the COVID-19 cases

At the time the contract was approved, the Houston-area was still a few weeks from peak resource use, according to two national databases. And over those weeks, Houston never came close to using all of the resources in its hospitals.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner made that clear on April 6, a day before the deal with Garner Environmental Services was approved by county commissioners.

“We are still within the hospitals’ abilities to handle the load," said Turner at the time.

That assessment has proven accurate and as the number of daily cases appears to be on the decline, it doesn’t appear the temporary facility will need to be mobilized. If it had been, the price tag for the project could have hit that $60 million mark.

But as it stands now, Harris County’s bill could be closer to $17 million and with the federal government pledging to reimburse 75% of the cost, county taxpayers could be on the hook for only $4.25 million.

Some county residents we spoke with Tuesday supported building the shelter, while others questioned whether it was a wise use of money.

Channel 2 Investigates did have two interviews scheduled with John Temperelli, Vice President of Garner Environmental Services, but both times he canceled.