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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Spotlight is on county as it decides how to dole out $90M in federal relief funds

UPDATED: Wed., April 22, 2020

Al French socializes at Spokane County Public Works building on Nov. 27, 2018. He said this week he wants to “mine the community for good ideas” about how to spend coronavirus relief funding from the federal government. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Al French socializes at Spokane County Public Works building on Nov. 27, 2018. He said this week he wants to “mine the community for good ideas” about how to spend coronavirus relief funding from the federal government. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

Some $90 million in federal emergency funds with almost no strings attached are headed toward Spokane County – and with it are coming criticisms of County Commissioner Al French’s initial signals that he wants to use the money not to offset financial emergencies such as rent or child care, but to develop a longer-view plan to boost the economy and support businesses.

French says he wants to do something “sustainable” that would provide jobs, rather than short-term “mitigation.” He envisions the possibility of using the money in ways that would directly support businesses or boost the overall economy – even suggesting an ad campaign to bring tourists to town might be one potential idea, given the brutal joblessness in the hospitality business.

“Even if I give people money to pay rent for this month, what do I do two months, three months, four months out?” French asked this week in an interview.

What he wants to focus on, he said, is protecting the typical Spokane County worker.

“How do I get them a paycheck?” he asked.

The guy who lost his job and can’t pay today’s rent – or the single mom who can’t afford child care to go to her “essential” job, or the owner of a small business that doesn’t qualify for other federal help, or the small landlord whose income dried up – might argue the emergency funds should go toward fixing the emergency.

Without it, four months out might look disastrous.

Advocates for Spokane’s at-risk communities are calling on the commission to expand its view of how the money might be used, and to include more voices when gathering views from the community on how the money should be spent.

“We have an opportunity with the CARES Act funding given to the county to support those who live and work here,” said Bishop Gretchen Rehberg of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, referring to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. “We support people, we support businesses.”

Rehberg and other members of the Spokane Alliance – a coalition of churches, nonprofits and community groups that is active in social-justice issues – held an online news conference Tuesday to call for using the funding to support families facing immediate hardships. It set these priorities: child care for workers still on the job; rental assistance to individuals and small businesses to avoid piling up huge debts; and support for essential services in the community, such as food banks, utilities and shelter space.

“Responding to this crisis also includes mitigating its disastrous impact in people’s lives,” according to a news release from the alliance. “If many people in our community experience crisis during this time – becoming homeless, taking on too much debt, or losing their health insurance and getting sick – as a county, we will not be in the best position to come back to work. When short-term setbacks edge people out of the economy, they become long-term setbacks – for individuals and for whole economies.”

French says there are other funds coming into the county to help with rent assistance, food and other similar needs – almost $1 million in Community Development Block Grant emergency funds the county is directing toward rental and food assistance, among other needs. He said Spokane and other cities in the county have received similar help, adding up to nearly $4 million.

The CARES Act funding is part of the $2 trillion federal package intended to offset the financial destruction of coronavirus. Large portions of that money were targeted to individuals, in the form of direct payments, and to businesses large and small. A relatively tiny part of the act includes these payments to local government, with the only guidance being that it is intended to cover “necessary expenditures” arising from the virus and stay-home orders that are not covered in other parts of the package.

Members of the Spokane Alliance said the range of community needs that might be addressed with the money is great. Many small businesses don’t qualify for federal support. Small, local landlords are stretched thin. Parents going to work struggle to either find, or pay for, child care. Immigrants may need help with language or other navigation of the help available to them.

“I’m very concerned that we have the right voices in the room … making these decisions,” Rehberg said.

A lot of people in this county live on the financial edge, and the people who advocate for them are concerned about some of the things French has said about the money – chiefly the divide between sustainability and mitigation.

But French’s concerns are also legitimate. The potential economic damage is large-scale, and coming out of this will be a challenge for businesses, and those challenges will affect workers. They will also blow a huge hole in government budgets. French and his fellow commissioners, Josh Kerns and Mary Kuney, are facing a disastrous county budget, and that’s bad news for all of us who rely on county services from law enforcement to swimming pools.

French said the CARES money will be spent based on consultation with leaders of other jurisdictions in the county, individuals and business leaders.

“We want to mine the community for good ideas,” he said. “We don’t even have the money yet. The money won’t be here until next week.”

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