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Spokane health district faces deficits due to COVID-19; county commissioners want other entities to help cover cost

The Spokane Regional Health District, whose building is show here in 2017, is facing a budget shortfall of as a result of its effort to respond to COVID-19. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
By Rebecca White and Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

The Spokane Regional Health District is facing a $4 million budget deficit due to costs associated with COVID-19, and the shortfall could grow if cases increase significantly.

If a surge happens this year, the district could need up to $10 million in funding.

The funding is out there, including from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, which directed federal funds at cities and counties to bolster local response to the pandemic.

The SRHD Board of Health met Thursday and considered a resolution asking the Spokane County commissioners to earmark up to $10 million of those funds in order to cover expenses that the health district is having difficulty covering.

Instead of passing the resolution, however, all three county commissioners, who also sit on the board of health, redirected the meeting, promised they would allocate the funding and effectively squashed the resolution from being passed.

“As commissioners, we will be committed to making sure we’ve got the money we need for contact tracing,” Commissioner Mary Kuney said, after saying she did not believe the resolution was necessary.

Kuney said she understands the need for the CARES dollars to be spent on the public health emergency and gave her vocal support of funding the health district.

Spokane Regional Health District Administrator Amelia Clark plans to meet with the commissioners next week and explain the budget deficits, too. Commissioner Josh Kerns agreed with Kuney, saying they were weighing options.

“There are a lot of things we could spend these CARES dollars on, and certainly public health is one of those approved spending areas,” Kerns said.

Commissioner Al French agreed and took it further, asking the other cities with representatives on the health board to chip in.

“I don’t think the resolution is necessary. Let me speak to a bigger motion that I find interesting is what this resolution does is, it’s asking the county to cover 100% of the costs,” French told the board. “I raised this issue two years ago, and it wasn’t addressed and I’ll raise it again now: If this is a regional organization, why aren’t all our partners at the table sharing their CARES money to cover the cost?”

The cities and county received CARES Act funds that were funneled through the state, but the county received the vast majority of the money.

The city of Spokane received $6.6 million. Spokane Valley received $2.9 million. Every other city in Spokane County received less than $500,000. Some, such as the city of Millwood, received $53,800.

Spokane County, however, received about $90 million in a direct payment from the U.S. Treasury, accounting for most of the federal funds from the CARES Act in this region. The funding was allocated to the county based on its total population, including those of its cities.

Ben Wick, mayor of Spokane Valley and chair of the board of health, said the intention behind the resolution was to get a firm, written commitment from commissioners to cover the district’s deficit so staff and leaders can sign contracts to continue programs that address COVID-19, such as contract tracing.

“The statement and the request I was trying to advance is we need something more than comments in a meeting that we’re going to get (funding) from commissioners,” Wick said, “I would sleep a lot better as a board member if the county would make a written commitment.”

Wick said he is open to discussing the future of the health district’s leadership structure, but would like to wait until after the district’s plan for pandemic response is funded.

“Those things can get hashed out, but they don’t happen over night. Our COVID response does,” Wick said. “My hope is that we can figure out this funding sooner than we figure out what the total identity of the health district is.”

French said the commissioners would cover the health district’s deficit, noting that commissioners could “cut a check” as soon as they meet with Clark next week.

When asked why he wouldn’t vote on a formal commitment, French said he was giving other cities an “opportunity to be partners.”

He said cities should have to decide whether they would contribute money to the health district by the end of August – or they would need to rethink their role as members.

The board did not take any actions indicating an August deadline was in place.

The Board of Health is not governed by the county commissioners alone, however, and there is a 12-member board with Spokane, Spokane Valley, county and smaller city representatives as well as three citizen members.

“All we’re saying is, if you want it to be a regional program with all of you at seats at the table, then contribute,” French said. “If you don’t want to contribute to the district that’s fine, then the county will just operate it as a department of the county. It’s pretty straight forward.”

But Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said cities do contribute to the health district through a tax that is collected by the state as a vehicle tab tax and funneled to the health district.

Beggs said he took the commissioners at their word that they would deal with the deficit next week, when they meet with Clark.

“We’ll let them do the right thing rather than let them feel like they’re forced into it,” Beggs said.

He said the board could take further action if the county doesn’t cover the health district’s deficit.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.