It’s the type of money that could have a generational effect on the Spokane region, so the message from leaders Monday was clear: Let’s not mess this up.
“If we squander it, and we don’t spend these dollars in the right way, in a thoughtful way, we’re going to regret it, but the people out there are the ones that are going to suffer for it,” said Spokane City Councilman Michael Cathcart.
The city of Spokane has $81 million in federal aid coming its way, and Mayor Nadine Woodward and the Spokane City Council want input on how to spend it.
Woodward and City Council members held a joint news conference Monday to announce in-person town hall events in each of the three City Council districts to discuss how Spokane should spend its portion of the American Rescue Plan funds.
They were joined by leaders from around the region, including Spokane County commissioners, who pledged to deploy resources collaboratively. Altogether, the county, cities and schools in Spokane County are in line to receive more than $200 million, although each jurisdiction has the final say on how their dollars are allocated.
The dates of the town hall events have not been set. The city will also host a telephonic town hall for those unable or uncomfortable with attending the in-person events.
“Public engagement, I believe, is the first critical step to a strong regional economic recovery,” Woodward said. “Everyone, I understand, is anxious to get these funds into the community, and the smarter, more intentional way we go about this will result in better outcomes in the end.”
The city is working to finalize its process for reviewing proposals to use American Rescue Plan funds.
A group of representatives from the City Council and administration, dubbed the Recovery Plan Workgroup, is expected to vet spending proposals before referring them to the full City Council for final approval, similar to how the city spent about $10 million in aid from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act last year.
The city has already received its first $40 million from the American Rescue Plan and will receive the second and final payment next year.
However, officials warned that the federal guidance and restrictions for appropriating the funds have yet to be finalized.
The City Council adopted a resolution in June that lays out its priorities for spending the American Rescue Plan money.
The resolution established the council’s spending focus on replenishing city revenues lost due to the pandemic, funding community organizations that will help in the recovery, provide relief to small businesses and people hurt by the pandemic, and long-term investments to promote stability in Spokane.
Local governments are facing pressure in deciding what to spend the funding on, and have said they will reflect on the efficacy of the CARES Act support.
Spokane County Board of Commissioners Chair Josh Kerns said he thought the county successfully used CARES Act money last year and plans to do the same with the American Rescue Plan.
“It’s looking at where the gaps are, where is the funding needed, who is not receiving ARP dollars that needs ARP dollars? Those are the types of things that we’re going to weigh in our decision-making process,” Kerns said.
The city’s chief financial officer, Tonya Wallace, is urging caution and care as the city contemplates how to dish out American Rescue Plan funding.
Although they are both forms of coronavirus relief, Wallace stressed the differences between 2020’s CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan.
“There are only a small group of eligible uses of these dollars and those uses will require all of the same – or most of the same – federal reporting and compliance requirements as any type of federal funding, which was not the case with our CARES dollars,” Wallace said.
The city can use the money to respond to the ongoing public health emergency, such as services like contact tracing and vaccination programs. It can also be used in response to behavioral health issues that have worsened during the pandemic, such as mental health or substance abuse.
The money can also be targeted toward those who suffered economically because of the pandemic, including small businesses and families, for programs like rental assistance.
Funds can be directed at the hardest hit communities to address things like health and educational disparities, such as by supporting childcare programs and homeless services. They have to be spent within a federally designated Qualified Census Tract, however.
The city can also use the funding to bolster its infrastructure, but the allowed uses are limited. It could be used for investments like improving water and sewer infrastructure, efforts to combat climate change, or expanding broadband internet access.
The city could also choose to provide premium pay to certain workers, like nursing home staff, who are working through heightened risk during the pandemic.
Spokane leaders could also dedicate the money to general government services, like its police or fire departments.
The city could also choose to make itself whole based on a calculation of its lost revenue during the pandemic. The city lost an estimated $20.6 million during 2020, and it could cover losses through 2023 under the current federal guidance.
“This number could easily go up to $40 million,” Wallace said.
City Council members expressed urgency Monday to help those in need.
“I don’t want us to slow roll resources that we know meet the requirements for our citizens going forward,” said Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson.
But with the litany of reporting and funding requirements – which are not yet finalized – the administration wants to hold back. At least for now.
The deadline for appropriating the money is not until the end of 2024.
The City Council voted Monday night to dedicate $100,000 from reserves to hire two part-time staff members to help begin to sort through proposals and administer American Rescue Plan dollars.
The council also amended its June resolution on Monday to signal its intent to waive normal public bidding requirements for money spent from the American Rescue Plan.
Typically, the city would have to welcome bids on major projects and contracts. In this case, however, the resolution states that temporarily doing away with that standard is necessary “to enable the city to respond quickly and efficiently to the public health and economic emergency caused by COVID-19, and to help Spokane recover as fast as possible.”
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