Washougal to get $495K in federal funds to help weather crisis

City leaders debate how to best spend the CARES Act money

A sign indicates that Hartwood Park in Washougal is closed on Friday, May 15. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

The city of Washougal will receive $495,000 in federal funds to help that city cope with the fallout from COVID-19.

Now, city leaders are trying to decide how best to use that money.

The Washington State Department of Commerce announced on May 8 that local governments throughout the state will receive a portion of the $300 million awarded to the state by the federal CARES Act.

Washougal City Manager David Scott said May 11, during a virtual city council workshop session, that Washougal leaders would be allowed to decide how to best utilize its $495,000, as long as the uses meet federal guidelines.

“As we’re able to leverage that $495,000, how much of it should we use against our own expenditures – past, current or future, depending on eligibility – (and how much should we put) out into the community? And then for whatever portion we would seek to put back into city expenditures, what would our priorities be?”

Scott said the money could be used to support individuals and families who may need assistance to pay their rent or mortgage or utility bills; or to support businesses by providing grants to help offset financial losses sustained as a result of the pandemic.

“We’ve got a wide range of options for support back into the community,” Scott said.

The city is dealing with financial challenges of its own, however. Last month, Scott told councilmembers that the city is preparing to lose $1.6 million as a result of the pandemic but has identified reductions and offsetting revenues of $1.26 million, leaving a gap of $341,000 that will be closed through staffing adjustments and the use of reserves.

“Certainly, if we get decent flexibility in how we can use those funds, we could unwind $495,000 of anything off of this (reductions) list,” Scott said.

Councilmembers Brent Boger, Paul Greenlee, Julie Russell, Ernie Suggs and Ray Kutch, as well as Mayor Molly Coston, said the relief money should primarily be used for city expenditures.

“I would attempt to get as much as we can into the city, to basically to make ourselves whole as much as we can,” Boger said. “But if there’s money that we can’t spend for that use, I would certainly be putting that into the community. The question is, ‘How do you make that call?’ But I would be supportive of (showing) the community that we are doing what we can. (Our contribution wouldn’t be) all that much, but it would show that we are concerned about our businesses.”

The city’s list of proposed budget reductions includes: deferring some projects; eliminating seasonal workers; reducing some supplies and services; “freezing” the hiring of a second code compliance officer; eliminating vacation “buy-backs” for police officers and non-represented employees; reducing equipment expenses for vehicles and information technology; eliminating employee travel; and reducing events support and professional services administration.

“I would agree that our primary focus should be on the city, because when you look at that list of cuts, it’s very extensive and very painful,” Coston said. “Really, it’s a challenge to analyze and figure out and determine how we are going to give grants to businesses or individuals or renters. That’s going to be a real challenge, so we need a little time to work through that. For me it would be, like, 80-20 – 80 percent goes to the city, 20 percent to the community. I do love the idea of being able to help the community through this challenge.”

“My question is, ‘Where is the greatest good?’” Greenlee said. “Frankly, I don’t see giving money to individuals or individual businesses meets that test. The city provides the greater good for the community, and anything that we can do to keep the city whole, I think, is the obvious choice.”

Councilmember Alex Yost said she believed the city should give some of the relief money to residents and businesses.

“I agree that the greater good, the big picture, is definitely very important,” Yost, owner of the OurBar restaurant in downtown Washougal, said. “But I think if we don’t even put a little bit of money aside from this for individuals and work through some thorough process to get it back out into the community, that could be seen as … a slap in the face.”

“A 50-50 (split) would be so great. I just don’t know if it’s feasible, especially just knowing how tight we are with our budget normally,” Yost added. “But I think we just need to look at it. Even if it’s pennies to dollars, we have to keep a couple of those pennies available for individuals. Otherwise, I could see it being kind of a public relations disaster.”

Councilmember Michelle Wagner said that she would favor equal distribution of the funds.

“I feel like it’s going to take a long, long conversation on how to utilize (the relief) money, and especially how to fairly distribute it if we do decide to give it to local businesses or citizens,” she said. “It’s going to be very complicated to make it a fair process and to ensure that it’s not rife with any abuses.”
According to the United States Department of the Treasury, the CARES funds may not be used to fill shortfalls in government revenue to cover expenditures that would not otherwise qualify under the statute. “Many uses of funds are allowed, but revenue replacement is not one,” the department’s website states.

However, Scott said that he’s reasonably certain that the city can use all of its CARES Act funds to cover expenses related to the city’s COVID-19 response.

“There will be a number of already incurred expenses and future expenses that should be eligible for reimbursement,” Scott told the Post-Record. “(The Washington State Department of) Commerce will provide feedback and guidance on specific items and ultimately will approve invoices for reimbursement. Based on this, we have some confidence that our entire allocation of $495,000 could be utilized to cover city expenses related to our COVID-19 response.

“Ultimately, the council will decide if the city will use all of the allocation to cover eligible expenses related to our COVID-19 response or if some portion will be used to support the community in other ways,” Scott said.

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