Spokane County received $90 million under the federal CARES Act. That money is meant to help the community adapt to and rebound from the pandemic. It’s not supposed to be a slush fund for projects unrelated to COVID-19 such as implementing an electronic filing system at the county clerk’s office.
Don’t get us wrong. The county is long past due for that particular technology upgrade. The fact that most people who file paperwork or make payments with the county clerk must do so in person on actual paper is ridiculous in 2020.
Lawyers, judges and other people wrapped up in the legal system shouldn’t have to trudge down to the clerk’s office. A computer and a credit card should be all they need.
A paperless system isn’t just about convenience for filers, either. Staff in the clerk’s office would find digital records easy to manage. There also would be savings on the cost of paper, not to mention cutting down on closet space necessary for storing all those files.
Technology upgrades ought to be built into county budgets. Buying new computers, software and the like is something any government or business needs to do periodically.
Last week, county commissioners approved $89,000 for an information technology business analyst to evaluate what the clerk’s office needs and to recommend a vendor. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Where things go off the rails is the rush to beat the end-of-year CARES spending deadline.
County officials have manufactured an argument that this is related to the pandemic because it will reduce the need for people to come to the office and potentially spread the virus. People can work from home instead.
True, but John Dickson, the county’s chief operating officer, let slip the real reasoning. “If a citizen doesn’t have to physically come here, that saves time and money. A lot of folks don’t have the money for the gas and the parking. So we’re using this as an opportunity to really jump-start a lot of our holistic long-term efforts,” he said.
This should have been on the county’s radar regardless of the pandemic. In fact, County Clerk Tim Fitzgerald has been pushing to modernize the office for a while.
When Congress included assistance for local governments in the CARES Act, it wasn’t to fund projects that needed to happen anyway. (CARES stands for Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security.) The U.S. Treasury Department, which oversees the local government funding, notes that the money may only be used to cover expenses that “are necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease 2019.”
It’s a stretch to say that the need for paperless filing was incurred “due to the public health emergency” when the need for an upgrade existed long before anyone had even heard of COVID-19.
We don’t mean to suggest that the county has been wasting all of its CARES money. There have been a few questionable expenses, but the big-ticket expenditures went to worthwhile, pandemic relief that benefits the community.
The county approved $6 million for the Spokane Regional Health District, $10 million on small business grants, $2 million to promote local shopping and health guidelines, $2.5 million for tourism marketing, $2 million on food programs at Second Harvest, and a few million more on PPE for county employees and technology to help them work from home.
It’s hard to see how a paperless filing system fits into that list. County commissioners should take a careful look at the criteria they are using to spend the CARES money and ask themselves if the clerk’s project and any other that comes forward in the next few months genuinely meets them.
Spokane County will lose whatever CARES dollars it doesn’t spend by the end of the year, but that doesn’t justify throwing it at projects far from the spirit – and arguably the letter – of the pandemic relief Congress intended.
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