Camas seeks input on COVID relief funds

City to receive $6.8M from American Rescue Plan for pandemic aid

City of Camas officials will soon reach out to the public for ideas on how best to spend the nearly $7 million in COVID-19 relief funds the city will receive from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act.

“We’re working … to make sure we get as much information from the community as possible,” Camas Finance Director Cathy Huber Nickerson told the Camas City Council on Sept. 7.

The city will gather ideas from the public through its online Engage Camas and Balancing Act tools, Huber Nickerson said, and likely place information in citizens’ utility bills.

“We’ll try to reach as many people as possible,” Huber Nickerson told Camas Interim Mayor Ellen Burton, after Burton asked how residents who didn’t have access to the online Engage Camas platform might contribute their ideas for the city’s COVID-19 relief funds.

The city is set to receive a total of $6.8 million from the American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed into law in March 2021. The city received its first installment of $3.4 million in June, and will receive an additional $3.4 million next year, in June 2022.

The city will have four years to spend the American Rescue Plan money. Eligible uses for the funds include COVID expenditures or negative economic impacts of COVID-19, including money to help small businesses and households hit hardest by the pandemic; premium pay for essential workers; city revenue losses related to the pandemic; and investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

Huber Nickerson provided the city council members with a list of “really broad topics other cities have used in different ways” when figuring out how to spend the federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Included in this list were items such as: supporting recovery from the pandemic; building resiliency; maximizing partnerships; reconnecting the community; having public spaces for health and safety; cybersecurity; supporting economic efforts; providing community assistance; and protecting the city’s water, sewer, stormwater and broadband infrastructure.

Councilmember Steve Hogan said it seemed as if the city might be able to “reconnect the community, maximize partnerships, build community and build resiliency” if it focused on providing broadband throughout Camas, and asked if the city might be able to partner with the Port of Camas-Washougal.

Huber Nickerson said she did not think the Port had received any funds from the American Rescue Plan, but that the city of Washougal might be a potential partner if Camas city officials were interested in expanding broadband capabilities throughout the Camas-Washougal area.

Camas’ interim city administrator, Jeff Swanson, added that the city could potentially “maximize partnerships” by looking for some federal grants related to the American Rescue Plan and using its limited American Rescue Plan funds as matching money.

“Instead of using all of our (American Rescue Plan) funds on one of these projects, we could use (the money) as a match to get some of those other (American Rescue Plan) dollars,” Swanson said, adding that city leaders will likely have “a clearer idea of opportunities to do some work in the city … as Congress works through (Biden’s proposed) $3.5 billion infrastructure package.”

Councilmember Greg Anderson said he would like to see the city focus on building public spaces for health and safety, as well as provide community assistance to those impacted by the pandemic.

“Those two, for me, get us out of the hole we’re in for the whole community,” Anderson said, adding that he hoped other city council members would consider not just what is best for the city in the short-term, but also into the future, when considering the best uses for the federal COVID-19 relief funds.

“What is best for us now … tomorrow and in the future?” Anderson asked. “We don’t (want to) lose sight of these things. We need to support the whole community, and we need to look at those (who have been) feeling a lot of pain (during the pandemic).”

Councilmember Don Chaney said he was brainstorming ways the city might be able to work with other jurisdictions and partners to make Camas’ federal dollars stretch further through regional partnerships for things like fire and emergency medical services, water services and cemetery services.

“It’s becoming more and more expensive to do those things because we try to do them as a stand-alone,” Chaney said. “Maybe doing partnerships could help enhance our community and those of our neighbors.”

Burton said she would also like to focus some of the federal dollars on making sure Camas has a cybersecurity plan, and noted that other cities have had to deal with expensive hacking.

“Cities are being held hostage on a regular basis,” Burton said. “Cybersecurity is a major concern in our environment … we need to make sure we have a strong, resilient community because that’s the basis for everything, but we also need to have strong cybersecurity.”

Huber Nickerson said she will work with the city’s communications director, Bryan Rachal, to gauge the public’s ideas for the American Rescue Plan money, and query city staff leaders before bringing those findings back to the city council for another discussion about how Camas will spend its nearly $7 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds.