Spokane County Commissioners have spent more than half of the $91 million the region was allotted in COVID-19 aid, a significant portion of which was used on small business grants, public health and food assistance.
About $40 million remains and commissioners have less than 90 days to spend it.
The funding is from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which Congress approved in March. Governments with a population of over 500,000 were eligible to receive a direct aid payment from the U.S. Treasury. Spokane County was one of five in the state large enough to receive funding. All other governments had much smaller amounts funneled through the state.
The CARES Act stipulates the money can only be spent on COVID-19 related activities and can’t be used to replace lost revenues. Commissioners said they were confident they could find ways to spend the funds before the bill’s Dec. 30 deadline, but said they hope Congress agrees to extend it.
“I anticipate we’ll spend it all if we need to,” said Commissioner Mary Kuney, “We certainly don’t want to (give the) money back to the federal government.”
Kuney said she’s looking into using some of the remaining funds for mortgage assistance, adding she’s trying to meet with financial institutions to better understand the needs in the community.
Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French, who both said they anticipated being able to use the funds in time, noted they hoped to use some of the remaining COVID-19 aid for a second round of business grants, above the $11.6 million the county has already allocated for a small business and nonprofit grant program.
French said he imagined the second round of business grants would focus on entities with fewer than 200 employees instead of the 50-employee limit on past small business grants. He also anticipated the second grant program will award between $15 and $18 million to small businesses and will take place in November.
Grants to small businesses and nonprofits were the county’s largest expenditure of COVID-19 funds. Commissioners also directed money to support the business community in other ways including providing about $1.5 million in free personal protective equipment for businesses and using the CARES funds to pay for marketing the community. The $4.5 million in marketing funds went to The Inlander, Visit Spokane and GSI.
When commissioners approved the funds, they anticipated the county would be open by the fall and Kerns said he hoped those dollars would help drive job growth.
“We all expected we would be down the phased reopening process at this point,” he said. “That process has stopped. When those funds were allocated, we were confident it would help drive the hospitality, service and tourism sectors that have seen a great amount of job loss.”
In addition to spending COVID aid funds on tourism and marketing, commissioners allocated about $2.2 million to the Public Facilities District to create touchless spaces to pay, create more virtual tools and help cover the costs of a potential college sports bubble. The Public Facilities District has applied to host NCAA sports events during the pandemic.
Public Facilities District CEO Stephanie Curran said the organization will not use $240,000 of the money allocated to them if they are not chosen to host college sports.
Commissioners also allocated $8 million to the Spokane Regional Health District and all said they were willing to set aside at least $5 million more along with money for child care and food.
Kuney said some of the health district’s needs, such as funds for contact tracing, will likely continue after the new year and she hopes the deadline for the funds will be extended.
Commissioners have set aside money for food and child care, including about $6 million for Second Harvest food bank and another $570,000 for the Inland Northwest Farmer’s Market Association for locally sourced food boxes.
Spokane Alliance – a coalition of labor unions and faith leaders – requested about $4 million for vouchers families can use for child care and other funds to support struggling child care businesses. The request was on behalf of nonprofit Community Minded Enterprises and child care providers in the Spokane area.
Commissioners approved $3 million out of the $4 million request saying some state aid for child care businesses should soon arrive in Spokane County. French, who said he supported them getting the full amount, said they could return for a request later once there is more information on how much state aid is available to Spokane County for child care.
Kate Ashmor Zinler, lead organizer for Spokane Alliance, said she appreciated the commissioners’ commitment to child care, adding the funding likely will help more than 2,000 children and allow parents to get back to work.
Leaders from Spokane Alliance were critical of the commissioners during the early phase of awarding funding because of the focus on business. Since the beginning of the pandemic, commissioners have allocated additional funds for food assistance and other programs and used other grant funds to provide around $5.9 million in rental assistance.
Zinler said she appreciated that commissioners had expanded their reach, paying for food assistance and providing some rental assistance, but said many basic needs, especially rental assistance, in Spokane County are still unmet.
In addition to food, PPE and public health, commissioners have used CARES funds to pay for social distancing upgrades in county buildings and the jail, software and technology upgrades for county employees and helmets with clear face shields for sheriff’s deputies. On Monday commissioners also approved $270,000 for the Mt. Spokane Ski & Snowboard Park for buses and other changes and about $104,000 for Daybreak Youth Services to cover the cost of an isolation facility for an outbreak at the youth treatment facility this summer.
Commissioners have heard several requests that didn’t move forward.
During the summer, county jail staff initiated a request to use at least $4 million in CARES funding to purchase temporary jail structures but did not move forward with the proposal due to time restrictions.
Spokane Valley Fire Department, which also serves Millwood and Liberty Lake, on Monday requested $1.6 million in CARES funds for ventilators, cardiac monitors and AEDs. Commissioners have heard the proposal twice but have not yet approved it.
French said commissioners dedicate every Monday to hearing CARES Act requests and await several they have not yet received from organizations like the Downtown Partnership or the Restaurant Association. French said he was open to rent or mortgage assistance in the future if an organization clearly shows the need.