Washougal will give $100K to help struggling residents, businesses

City will use portion of federal CARES funds, meant to curb the COVID-19 pandemic's negative impacts, to pay utilities, offer small business grants

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Washougal Mayor Molly Coston (left) presides over a city council meeting in January. The city will ask voters if they would like to designate the council's No. 1 position as mayor in November. (Contributed photo courtesy of city of Washougal)

The city of Washougal plans to use $100,000 from its federal COVID-19 relief funds to help residents who are struggling to pay their utilities as well as small businesses negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“This money (will) substantially help people who are either in a low-income situation and can’t afford to keep their water on or stay current on their bills, or small business owners who are trying to piece together payroll one week at a time,” Washougal City Councilwoman Alex Yost said during the council’s Oct. 12 workshop. “These programs are a major show of faith that we care about our community in both the small business and resident populations.”

The city council voted earlier this month to create a utility assistance program, which will aid low-income residential utility customers who have delinquent account balances. The council also will establish a fund to help small businesses that have had to limit their operations during the pandemic.

The money comes from the $2.2 trillion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act passed by Congress in March as a response to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis. In May, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the state would award $300 million of its CARES funds to local governments that did not receive direct distributions under the federal act.

Washougal received $742,500 from the state and city councilors decided to use most of the money to backfill the city’s own pandemic-related budget shortfalls, but left open the idea of also helping community members in need.

“The spirit of (the funds) was to help communities, and that’s what I come back to,” Councilwoman Michelle Wagner told her peers on Oct. 12. “Whether it’s individuals struggling to pay their utility bills or small businesses, I feel the spirit of (the CARES Act) would suggest that we need to give something to the community.”

The city has allocated $30,000 to its utility bill assistance program, which will provide credit to accounts for residential utility customers who meet the program income requirements and have an unpaid account balance for more than 30 days. The funds are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Residential customers are eligible if they meet household income limits set by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Applicants must complete and submit an application to the city’s finance department by 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13.

“(The program) hits those members of the community that may be impacted negatively by the loss of a job,” Mayor Molly Coston stated in the news release issued by the city, “and hits a demographic and service that the county and state may not have been able to (impact).”

The city has also allocated $70,000 for a program that will provide grants of up to $3,000 to eligible retail and service industry businesses. To qualify, the businesses must be located in the city of Washougal, have a storefront, be locally owned and have no more than 20 full-time employees. The grant money must be used to cover pandemic-related business expenses incurred between March 1 and Nov. 13.

According to the city, eligible expenses include rent payments; employee wages, benefits and taxes; typical operating costs; owner wages; expenses related to the public health measures designed to slow the spread of COVID-19; and equipment that enables outdoor seating.

Councilors express doubts about programs

Come council members expressed doubts about the plan to give $100,000 to residents and businesses.

Councilwoman Julie Russell questioned the use of the funds because she saw several grant programs for small businesses at the state, county and federal level and didn’t think the city needed “to recreate the wheel.”

“The city’s finances are down because of COVID; we’re just not sure how much. I think $100,000 is a lot of money for the city of Washougal,” she said. “We’re a small city.”

Councilman Brent Boger said he initially supported the grant fund for small businesses, but wondered how effective the program would be.

“From what I’m hearing — and I hate to say it this way, but it’s kind of what I’m thinking — it’s more trouble than it’s worth with all the staff time and administrative difficulties,” Boger said.

Councilman Paul Greenlee, who has consistently said he favors the city using all of the CARES money to fill its own budget gaps, said that “figuring out how to support the small businesses that have been most impacted is hugely problematic.”

“The city of Washougal serves everyone,” Greenlee added. “To keep the city whole is to keep the community whole. My own view is to spend the funds internally.”