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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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One-time opportunity: Spokane County and region’s cities meet to discuss American Rescue Plan

The Spokane County Courthouse and Jail are seen in this 2019 aerial photo. Dozens of elected officials met on Friday to discuss how they'll use the cumulative $208 million Spokane County and the region's cities are receiving through the American Rescue Plan.   (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane County Courthouse and Jail are seen in this 2019 aerial photo. Dozens of elected officials met on Friday to discuss how they'll use the cumulative $208 million Spokane County and the region's cities are receiving through the American Rescue Plan.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County’s local governments might never get a $208 million opportunity like this from the federal government again.

So it’s important, area leaders say, to use the region’s cumulative American Rescue Plan dollars as efficiently as possible.

On Friday, Spokane County convened the Council of Governments at CenterPlace Regional Event Center in Spokane Valley to begin a group discussion about how the county and cities can best spend their American Rescue Plan allotments. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council of Governments met annually to discuss regional issues. Friday marked the first gathering since 2019.

Congress passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in 2021 to help the country recover from the pandemic. Spokane County received $101 million, Spokane gets $81 million and $16 million is going to Spokane Valley. The county’s smaller towns get smaller slices – Waverly gets the least, with $23,000.

Spokane has already started earmarking its money. The City Council this month set aside $14 million for affordable housing, child care, local artists and city parks. The county and other cities haven’t outlined their spending goals in detail.

The American Rescue Plan is similar to the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that Congress passed at the start of the pandemic, but there are key differences.

Speed was a priority with the CARES Act. Local governments had unprecedented freedom in how they could use their allocations, which allowed them to get the money where it was needed quickly early on in the pandemic.

The American Rescue Plan comes with far more restrictions – “It’s going to have more red tape,” Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney said – and governments don’t have to spend their money until 2026.

“The expectation is that these (dollars) are not going to be spent quickly,” Kuney said. “The expectation is that this is another reserve for us to draw on if there is another wave of COVID.”

The dollars can only be spent on public health, alleviating the negative economic impacts of the pandemic, aiding disproportionately impacted communities, premium pay for front line essential workers or infrastructure – exclusively for broadband, water and sewer projects.

“Historically, our most frequent comment has been, ‘Fix the roads,’ ” said Jeff McMorris, who is leading the county’s American Rescue Plan distribution effort. “That’s not an option.”

Kuney said that the county and cities will have to coordinate their American Rescue Plan projects, both among themselves and with the state, to ensure they aren’t double-spending on the same programs or failing to spend on critically important issues.

Collaboration will make the region’s American Rescue Plan dollars go further, Kuney said.

During Friday’s discussion, elected officials, economic development leaders, nonprofit representatives and business owners brainstormed ideas for how to spend the $208 million.

Two themes emerged: affordable housing and infrastructure.

Most speakers said more affordable housing is desperately needed. Some emphasized that they want to focus on owner-occupied housing, not subsidized rental properties.

It’s likely cities within Spokane County will dedicate millions to improving their sewer and water systems using American Rescue Plan money. Individuals in more rural areas expressed interest in improving broadband access.

In addition to affordable housing and infrastructure, attendees said they’d like to invest in child care, early learning and economic development, to name a few.

Some elected officials offered specific pitches.

For instance, Spokane County Commissioner Al French said he wants to try to use American Rescue Plan money to convince Boeing to build an aerospace facility in the county.

“Now that Boeing is through their 737 Max challenges, there’s a great opportunity to re-engage with a conversation they tried to start three or four years ago and develop a new market aircraft,” French said. “We should be the location for that.”

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