The Spokane region will soon receive about $90 million from the federal government to help business, organizations and agencies recover from COVID-19 expenses.
Spokane County, the only government agency in Eastern Washington large enough to qualify for a CARES Act payment approved by Congress last month, has not yet decided on how to spend it.
Governments must serve a constituency of more than 500,000 people to be eligible for the money. Spokane County was one of five in the state large enough to qualify. Others included King, Piece and Snohomish counties, and the City of Seattle.
Spokane County Commissioner Al French expects the funds to arrive sometime next week, but said the county could be months away from spending it as they wait for more federal guidelines and social distancing measures and business restrictions to loosen.
French said his “No. 1” priority was making sure local businesses recover from the pandemic so they can bring back, or hire new employees. Promoting business was the only long-term way for the economy to recover, he said. Spending the money on “mitigations efforts” such as rental assistance and other aid was not a sustainable use of the funding, he said.
“I want to see people in a position where they can start getting back to work and pulling a paycheck and becoming self-sufficiennt again,” French said. “That’s the only sustainable solution out of this. Continuing to say we’re going to mitigate is not a sustainable solution.”
French along with business group Greater Spokane Inc. are currently leading a task force of businesses, trade organizations, chambers of commerce and city managers to find the best way to use the money to jumpstart business recovery once Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order is lifted.
French is the only county commissioner on the task force, but said other county commissioners would likely join in on future meetings. He said he also planned to include the mayors of cities within Spokane County in eventual talks of how to spend the money as well. But the decision is ultimately up to the county.
County Commissioner Josh Kerns said he also was focused on business and stimulating the economy, but acknowledged he also wanted to look at food security.
Kerns and French said there are other sources of funding, such as new Community Development Block Grant funding that had recently become available due to increased need caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, that could be used for things like the food bank and rental assistance.
Commissioner Mary Kuney called for a holistic approach, saying she would like to hear from local governments, non-profits and businesses. She said it will also be difficult to make decisions about spending the money on businesses when they are weeks, or possibly longer, away from opening to the public.
“I think we have to look at what’s the greater good for our entire community and how it’s going to help our economy,” Kuney said. “Just getting people back in jobs is going to be helpful, but again, we’re still two (or) three weeks away from that, so in the meantime, where are we at with our non-profits and with our mental health in our community.”
Kuney, who has previously worked as an auditor reviewing federal grants, said she also would like more specifics from the federal government regarding how local governments are allowed to spend the CARES Act money they receive.
The Treasury Department has issued three rules on how the money should be spent.
According to the department’s website, more guidance will be posted.
States also will receive funding through the CARES Act. Washington is eligible to receive about $3 billion and Idaho could receive about $1.25 billion.
Other local government leaders from around the region said they have already met with at least one commissioner about the funding, or plan to in the next week.
Both Liberty Lake Mayor Shane Brickner and Airway Heights Mayor Kevin Richey said their communities had gone through hardships due to COVID-19, and said they had, or were planning to meet with commissioners about the funding.
“I think we’ve laid the groundwork for having a collaborative process,” Richey said. “I’m pretty confident everybody’s going to get some relief from that money.”
Spokane City Manager Wes Crago said Spokane was focused on working regionally and with other areas of the county that also had needs.
“The region-wide effort is very collaborative,” he said. “It involves not just the city of Spokane’s needs, but what are the needs in Cheney, the county, all the areas where money needs to be allocated.”
Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick said he also was hoping for more federal guidance on how the county was allowed to spend the money as well as information sharing between governments to make sure the money goes to where it’s needed most.
“There’s a lot of different people talking about it in a lot of different directions and I hope our region will come together to have a more thoughtful discussion on it,” he said.
Commissioner Kerns said he hopes the county will use a public process to include as much of the community as they can. The county did a series of roundtable presentations on their 2020 budget last fall, a process Kerns said they could potentially repeat with CARES Act funding.
“If you’ve got a great idea,” he said, “we want to hear it.”
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