Cities to dole out CARES funds, help pay for COVID-19 expenses

Camas, Washougal leaders mull best uses for federal relief money

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Cities throughout Washington, including Camas and Washougal, are trying to figure out the best way to disperse federal coronavirus relief funds and help offset costs related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The city of Camas will receive $722,700 to help pay for COVID-19 related costs incurred between March 1 and Oct. 31, 2020.

The money comes from the $2.2 trillion federal economic relief package known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law March 27.

At a workshop held July 20, Camas city councilors discussed how best to use the pandemic relief funds.

“Guidance has been broad and in some cases conflicting,” Camas Finance Director Cathy Huber Nickerson told council members and Mayor Barry McDonnell on July 20.

Cities may use the federal funds to cover expenses related to six main categories: medical expenses; public health expenses; payroll for employees dedicated to COVID-19; expenses to facilitate compliance with COVID-19 measures; economic supports; and other COVID-19 expenses.

Camas staff recommends the city allocate $115,000 to the Camas-Washougal Fire Department for staffing costs related to emergency medical response as well as an additional $18,000 for ambulance air filter modifications and $17,000 for ambulance supplies. The staff also recommends an additional $146,355 be spent on fire department staffing costs under the “payroll expenses for employees dedicated to COVID-19” category.

Huber Nickerson said staff recommends the council approve spending $215,533 to pay for public works shift work, which allowed the city to alternate public work crews every other week to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the department and to retain a “back-up crew” in the event that a public works employee became ill or had to quarantine due to COVID-19.

Other public health expenses recommended by Camas staff include $38,200 for personal protective equipment, $27,000 for the city’s communications contract, $12,000 for janitorial staff and equipment, $8,000 to host Zoom meetings and $1,875 related to quarantined staff expenses.

Other recommendations for the CARES Act funds include $10,000 for the City Hall Annex drive-through services; $22,934 to pay for sick and family leave related to the pandemic; $5,404 for telework computer equipment; $75,000 for the city’s Support Local and Save Program, which reduced utility expenses for individuals who spent money at local Camas businesses throughout May; and $10,400 for the Camas Public Library’s helpline, which connected people in need of various pandemic-related services to resources and volunteers willing to pitch in.

Council members discussed the recommendations at their July 20 workshop.

Councilwoman Ellen Burton asked about the fact that the majority of the funds would go to the fire department for mostly staffing-related costs.

Huber Nickerson said the city felt safe allocating the federal funds to medical-support personnel who were working “on the front lines of COVID-19.”

“So if we go with the fire department and medical staff we’re assured funding?” Burton asked.

“We know there will be no issues around emergency medical support,” Huber Nickerson said.

Councilwoman Shannon Roberts asked if it might be possible for the city to use some of the money to help citizens pay their rent.

“Yes, we can look at models for that,” Huber Nickerson said.

Councilwoman Bonnie Carter added that she would be willing to look at some type of rent assistance, but only if the city had a partnership with an organization able to properly vet the rental-assistance candidates.

“The concern is that we (would not be) getting to the people who really need it,” Carter explained. “We’ve talked about partnerships with organizations that work with people who actually need rent assistance. If we had a strong partnership, I’d be willing to look at that.”

The council members voted unanimously at their regular meeting later in the evening on July 20 to authorize McDonnell to sign the interagency agreement with the Washington Department of Commerce to release the funds to the city for COVID-19 expenses incurred between March 1 and Oct. 31, 2020.

The first CARES Act is set to expire July 31. Senators have been working on a second bill, an extension of the CARES Act called CARES 2, this week, and expect the second round of funding will be about half of the original $2.2 trillion economic relief package.

Washougal may use some funds to help small businesses

Washougal city councilors would like to spend some of their federal assistance money on public health communication items and face masks for the city’s small businesses. But they have yet to come to a consensus about the merits of implementing a business-assisting grant program.

During a virtual workshop session on July 13, Washougal City Manager David Scott recommended that the city provide its businesses with signage, floor decals, table tents and other communication items; branded personal protective equipment; and grants.

“I definitely support the first two,” Washougal Mayor Molly Coston said, “and I’d love to be able to support the third if we have some relatively small bucket of money to do so.”

The city of Washougal is set to receive $495,000 from the Washington State Department of Commerce, which announced in May that local governments will receive a portion of nearly $300 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) funds awarded to the state to address coronavirus-related costs.

While the councilors have expressed their strong desire to spend the majority of that money to backfill the city’s own pandemic-related budget shortfalls, they’ve also said that they’d be willing to set some of the funds aside to assist individuals and businesses.

Scott told the councillors that the public health information communication items would cost anywhere between $2,500 and $7,300.

“The (pandemic-related) restrictions, protocols and parameters would be part of the message,” Scott said. “We could take a collective action on behalf of the small businesses in our community to provide branded information.”

Five-hundred cloth masks would cost $3,000, according to Scott.

“I think (providing masks to businesses) would be really helpful and a great gesture from the city,” councilwoman Alex Yost said. “We have such an awesome logo and incredible in-house design. I think it could be a beautiful, functional, really helpful product.”

Councilwoman Julie Russell asked if the city would have to come up with some sort of “ranking system” if it established a grant program for businesses.

“If it’s a small pot of money and we get more requests (for money) than is available, how do we decide who gets the grant money and who doesn’t?” she asked. “That would be my concern.”

“I think there’s ways to actually prioritize that, so it’s not just the first 10 that apply that get it all,” Coston replied.

Councilman Paul Greenlee said that he’d rather see the city explore the possibility of creating or getting involved with a short-term marketing campaign designed to promote newly reopened businesses. Such a campaign is an allowed use of CARES Act dollars, Scott said.

“My problem is that if you look at a dollar value of who’s been most impacted, it’s the Pendleton Outlet Store Pendleton or Westlie Ford are going to be the gorillas in the room in terms of loss of business interruption. Is that really where you want to spend (this) money?” he said. “I don’t like direct grants at all. I think direct grants are a can of worms. We’re back to choosing winners and losers.”

Yost, however, said that most business owners would favor a grant program.

“I think at the end of the day, business owners are risk-takers,” said Yost, owner of the OurBar restaurant in downtown Washougal. “We always know that there’s a winner and loser. We know that we’re not the only game in town. I can’t speak for all of us, but I think there’s sort of this inherent risk that you take, so I think that we shouldn’t worry about this idea of winners and losers, because I think at this point anything helps.

“I like the idea of grants being awarded to businesses. … I think there’s some really cool opportunities when you put it back into the business owners’ hands and say, ‘OK, we have this little bit of a kick-start for you. What are you going to do with it?’ I think there’s already some good ideas circulating amongst ourselves. I’m excited to see what we do.”