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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County Commissioners spend last of federal COVID-19 aid on health district and correction officer, law enforcement salaries

A photo of the Spokane County Courthouse and County Jail taken in 2019. Spokane County Commissioners voted Monday to use about $9.5 million of the remaining CARES funds for Law Enforcement and Detention Services Employee Salaries.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County Commissioners voted to spend the last $12.5 million the county was allocated in federal COVID-19 aid on Monday morning on public health, internal expenses and corrections officer and law enforcement salaries.

The $91 million the county had to spend on its pandemic response came from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that Congress passed in March. Every local government and state that received funds initially were told they had until Wednesday to spend their share of the funds, or lose it. That deadline was extended until Dec. 30, 2021, on Sunday night when the president signed a $1.4 trillion government spending bill that included COVID-19 stimulus.

Despite the extension, the county allocated their remaining $12.5 million Monday morning.

They voted to spend $1 million on funding for the Spokane Regional Health District; $1.8 million to cover COVID-19 related expenses and personal protective equipment the county covered that weren’t covered by FEMA; about $275,000 expanding an existing small business grant program; and about $9.5 million on corrections officer and law enforcement salaries.

Initially, local governments were only allowed to spend COVID-19 aid funds on expenses caused or related to the pandemic, but after the bill went into effect, the U.S. Department of Treasury expanded the criteria to covering salaries for employees who dedicate a significant portion of their time responding to the pandemic. These workers can include detention service workers and law enforcement.

Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney said both detention services, which has seen an outbreak at the jail, and law enforcement have experienced significant increases in costs while responding to the pandemic, noting the entire county has been under significant financial strain.

“We’ve had a lot of things in this last year that we couldn’t afford and couldn’t pay for,” she said.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French said those who pay county taxes are shouldering a disproportionate share of cost of operating the criminal justice system during a pandemic, and these funds could offset that burden:

“The county taxpayers have basically been paying for the additional cost of dealing with this. Don’t you think the general taxpayers should have relief as well? These are services that we serve as stewards for the taxpayers.”

The $9.5 million allocated for the law enforcement and corrections officers will cover 73 Geiger Corrections Center employees salaries and benefits from March 1 to Dec. 15, 62 patrol deputies from March 1 to Nov. 30 and 17 employees from the Emergency Operations Center from March 15 to May 31.

Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said the commissioners went back to groups to which they previously gave COVID-19 aid funds , such as the school districts and the Spokane Regional Health District, to see if they needed more assistance before using CARES funds for law enforcement and the jail, and said they fulfilled their requests.

On Monday the commissioners approved about $60,000 in additional funds for the Reardan-Edwall School District and $1 million for the Spokane Regional Health District, in addition to the $8 million that was already allocated to the district earlier this year. The funds for the health district will be available going into 2021 now that the deadline has been extended.

“We have met the needs for what we have been asked,” Kerns said.

Spokane County received more COVID-19 aid than any other local government in Eastern Washington. Only governments with a population greater than 500,000 were eligible for a direct payment.

The largest share of the county’s total CARES funds went to support business, with around $23 million going directly to small business and nonprofit grant programs and about $4.6 million going to marketing campaigns for businesses and tourism. The second largest allocation went to the Health District, which received about $9 million. The county also spent several million directly supporting local school districts, several million on homeless shelters, more than $7 million on food banks and support programs, more than $2 million on energy assistance and several million on providing PPE for businesses in the county.