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Spokane County asked how it should spend $90 million – rent, food, small businesses aid were most common answers

The Spokane County Courthouse is seen on a sunny spring Sunday in April. Spokane County Commissioners will meet over the next week or two to read the public’s ideas on how to spend COVID-19 aid money. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane County Courthouse is seen on a sunny spring Sunday in April. Spokane County Commissioners will meet over the next week or two to read the public’s ideas on how to spend COVID-19 aid money. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

When the Spokane County Board of Commissioners received $90 million in federal aid last month to help respond to COVID-19, it asked the public for advice about how it should best be spent.

More than 1,100 people responded and the most common answers to the commissioners’ questions were child care, food, rental assistance and more help for small businesses.

Commissioners plan to review responses to the survey in more depth next week.

The money is Spokane’s share from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, which also included $1,200 in stimulus checks for individuals and aid for businesses.

Spokane County, with a population of more than 500,000, was the only government in Eastern Washington large enough to receive a direct payment from the federal government.

The funds can only be spent on coronavirus expenses and recovery. They cannot be used to stabilize the county’s budget or on projects that aren’t connected to COVID-19.

The most common topic respondents asked commissioners to address was rental assistance, with more than 160 people mentioning it. People asked for rental assistance for individuals and businesses facing hard times.

One respondent asked the county to assist families, including people who are undocumented, that haven’t been able to afford rent over the last few months.

“Families and small businesses can’t afford to leave this pandemic with a mountain of rent debt,” the respondent wrote.

That person was one of many who asked that the smallest businesses in the community, those with fewer than 10 employees, receive rental help as well. Many also asked for mortgage assistance for businesses, landlords and individuals.

The second-most common concern the public raised was food security, with more than 120 participants requesting the county increase its support to food banks or look for other ways to make sure everyone in Spokane County has enough to eat while out of work.

Local food banks have seen double-digit increases in visitors over the past few months and have hosted giveaways and expanded hours to serve the increased demand.

The third-most common request was child care assistance, with people asking county commissioners to consider spending the money to help child care businesses cover hazard pay for workers and other expenses. Many also asked commissioners to help families afford child care.

More than 110 people mentioned child care in their response.

One respondent worried that the economy won’t be able to reopen if day cares don’t receive some assistance.

“If we do not save our child care centers, there will be a huge shortage and people will have no one to watch their children so that they can go back to work,” they wrote.

Almost 100 people asked for more support for small business, especially small businesses that were eligible for a paycheck protection program loan but did not receive one. Several respondents said they, or someone they knew, had applied but their application didn’t receive a response or the fund ran dry before they could receive help.

Around 200 people asked the county to spend the $90 million on more testing, contact tracing, personal protective equipment and sanitizers.

County Commissioner Al French said he is open to spending CARES money on providing those products for businesses, because they may need it to reopen but have had issues buying it because of the nationwide shortages.

French said the county could use the $90 million to boost the health district’s funding to help provide those services or create a local PPE stockpile. He said getting businesses back on their feet and hiring back their employees is still his first priority and that providing testing is a safe way to do so.

French said he will consider the survey responses when making decisions, and could use the county’s funds from the CARES Act, or other additional funding it received from the Washington State Department of Commerce, the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to pay for some of the suggestions.

He said some suggestions, such as rental assistance, have already received funding through other programs, but that doesn’t mean some of the $90 million couldn’t be used for that.

“At this point, I wouldn’t discount anything until the board gets together and has that conversation,” French said. “Everything is on the table.”

County Commissioner Mary Kuney said her biggest priority was funding the health district. As Spokane moves to Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan, she said it’s still important to continue the basics, such as increased sanitation, and fund contact tracing, testing and PPE.

“If we don’t spend the money appropriately in public health, we won’t get to our next phases,” she said.

County Commissioner Josh Kerns, who said his biggest priorities were food security and small business recovery, said the county has delayed spending the money to see if expenses could be covered by other funding that has more restrictions.

Commissioners may wait to spend the bulk of the $90 million until other sources of aid, such as FEMA and Washington State Department of Commerce grants, are exhausted.

“We’ll use CARES Act money for what’s left,” he said. “Once we burn through the CARES Act money, it’s gone.”

French was criticized by local progressive faith and community leaders for earlier comments about wanting to focus on business recovery. Leaders at Spokane Alliance, including Bishop Gretchen Rehberg of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, urged commissioners to focus on child care and other types of assistance.

French said the funding likely won’t all be spent on business recovery and that he is trying to strike a balance.

Commissioners will likely decide how to spend some of the money over the next couple of weeks. All three said they may hold back some until the fall, in case there is another outbreak.

The U.S. Treasury Department has only released a few requirements for the funds: They must be spent by the end of the year, can only be used for COVID-19 expenses and related economic recovery, and can’t be used to make up for any expenses accounted for in a local government’s regular budget.

While those responding to the survey mostly focused on rent, assistance for business, child care and testing, some did request help for the homeless, domestic violence survivors, more mental health assistance and drug and alcohol treatment resources. Others also requested utility bill assistance.

At least 100 of the survey responses were requests for items like planting wildflowers, purchasing land to preserve green spaces or improving outdoor recreation. Coronavirus aid money cannot be used for these types of projects, according to the Treasury Department’s guidelines.

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